As Well As The Art Of Diplomacy, There Are Also The Arts Of Diplomacy

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If the Founding Fathers had difficulty reconciling themselves to monarchical customs requiring that treaties be accompanied by artistic trappings, the question of diplomatic gifts created an even stickier problem. The men who drafted the Constitution thought they were taking care of the matter in Article I, Section 9, which provides that

no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them [the United States], shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

There seems to have been very little real debate on the subject in the Constitutional Convention. James Madison’s notes record only that, in support of Article I, Section 9, “Mr. Pinckney urged the necessity of preserving foreign ministers, and other officers of the United States, independent of external influence.” Edmund Randolph explained to the Virginia Ratification Convention that a particular incident had prompted the inclusion of this prohibition in the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin had accepted a gift, probably a snuff box with a portrait of Louis XVI on it, from the king of France. “It was thought proper,” Randolph declared,

in order to exclude corruption and foreign influence, to prohibit any one in office from receiving or holding any emoluments from foreign states. I believe, that if at that moment, when we were in harmony with the king of France, we had supposed that he was corrupting our ambassador, it might have disturbed that confidence, and diminished that mutual friendship, which contributed to carry us through the war.

Nothing in the Federalist Papers deals with receiving gifts. But in discussing the reasons for having the Senate “advise and consent” to the ratification of treaties, Alexander Hamilton observed that the President might be “tempted to betray the interests of the State for the acquisition of wealth,” considering the fact that a man might be

raised from the station of a private citizen to the rank of chief magistrate, possessed of a moderate or slender fortune, and looking forward to a period not very remote when he may probably be obliged to return to the station from which he was taken.

Europeans apparently accepted without comment the austerity of Americans who joined the diplomatic corps in their capitals, but to the Moslem potentates of North Africa and the Near East a failure to exchange presents was an example of very bad manners, if not an expression of ill will. Recognizing this attitude, American policy alternated between a rather relaxed acceptance of established patterns within the spirit of the Constitution and occasional fierce attacks of conscience that caused strict adherence to its letter. In 1796, for example, Consul Joel Barlow reported that he had been welcomed by the dey of Algiers with a gift of “a fine Barbary stallion,” and President Washington expressed pleasure that he had been received so graciously. But when, in i?95, Pierre Adet, the French minister to the United States, presented George Washington with the colors of France on behalf of the French Committee of Safety, Washington replied formally:

I receive, sir … the colors of France, which you have now presented to the United States. … [They] will be deposited with the archives of the United States, which are at once the evidence and the memorials of their freedom and independence.

The first two Presidents surrounded themselves with a certain amount of pomp and ceremony as a means of demanding respect for the new office of the Presidency. But when Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated, all protocol went by the board, and the atmosphere in the White House became so studiedly informal that some representatives of foreign governments were insulted. Jefferson for his part did not hide his disapproval when the French minister, Gerneral Louis Marie Turreau de Garambouville, Baron de Linières, presented his credentials in 1804 in clothing heavily ornamented with gold lace. The President later remarked to John Quincy Adams that “they must get him [Turreau] down to a plain frock coat, or the boys in the streets will run after him as a sight.”

Jefferson was also scrupulous about receiving gifts. Even from American citizens he said he would not accept anything but a pamphlet, a book, or some curiosity of small enough value to be “below suspicion.” Many Presidents deemed it proper for their wives or children to accept presents, since they do not hold “any office of profit or trust,” but Jefferson would not permit his daughter to keep a cashmere shawl presented by the ambassador from Tunis. Although it was accepted ceremoniously as an expression of the good will of the bey of Tunis, it was sold at auction, and the proceeds were deposited in the Treasury.