A Brief History of the Emoluments Clause

The Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution is in the news today as ethics lawyers consider the ethical and legal implications of president-elect Trump’s foreign business dealings. I thought it would be useful to provide here a brief history of the Emoluments Clause.

Text of the Constitution – Article I, Section 9, Clause 8

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, 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.”

Debates in the Constitutional Convention

(1) James Madison’s Notes, August 6, 1787

Sect. 7. The United States shall not grant any title of nobility.

(2) James Madison’s Notes, August 23, 1787

On the question to agree to Art. VII–sect. 7. as reported It passed nem: contrad:

Mr Pinkney urged the necessity of preserving foreign Ministers & other officers of the U. S. independent of external influence and moved to insert–after Art VII sect 7. the clause following–“No person holding any office of profit or trust under the U. S. shall without the consent of the Legislature, accept of any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State which passed nem: contrad.

The Federalist Papers

(1) The Federalist No. 22 (Alexander Hamilton)

Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. An hereditary monarch, though often disposed to sacrifice his subjects to his ambition, has so great a personal interest in the government, and in the external glory of the nation, that it is not easy for a foreign power to give him an equivalent for what he would sacrifice by treachery to the State. The world has accordingly been witness to few examples of this species of royal prostitution, though there have been abundant specimens of every other kind.

In republics, persons elevated from the mass of the community, by the suffrages of their fellow-citizens, to stations of great pre-eminence and power, may find compensations for betraying their trust, which to any but minds animated and guided by superior virtue, may appear to exceed the proportion of interest they have in the common stock, and to over-balance the obligations of duty. Hence it is that history furnishes us with so many mortifying examples of the prevalency of foreign corruption in republican governments.

Early Commentaries on the Constitution

(1) St. George Tucker, Blackstone’s Commentaries

Corruption is too subtle a poison to be approached, without injury. Nothing can be more dangerous to any state, than influence from without, because it must be invariably bottomed upon corruption within. Presents, pensions, titles and offices are alluring things. In the reign of Charles the second of England, that prince, and almost all his officers of state were either actual pensioners of the court of France, or supposed to be under its influence, directly, or indirectly, from that cause. The reign of that monarch has been, accordingly, proverbially disgraceful to his memory. The economy which ought to prevail in republican governments, with respects to salaries and other emoluments of office, might encourage the offer of presents from abroad, if the constitution and laws did not reprobate their acceptance. Congress, with great propriety, refused their assent to one of their ministers to a foreign court, accepting, what was called the usual presents, upon taking his leave: a precedent which we may reasonably hope will be remembered by all future ministers, and ensure a proper respect to this clause of the constitution, which on a former occasion is said to have been overlooked.

(2) William Rawle, A View of the Constitution of the United States

There cannot be too much jealousy in respect to foreign influence. The treasures of Persia were successfully distributed in Athens; and it is now known that in England a profligate prince and many of his venal courtiers were bribed into measures injurious to the nation by the gold of Louis XIV.

A salutary amendment, extending the prohibition to all citizens of the United States, and disfranchising those who infringe it, has been adopted by some of the states; but not yet by a sufficient number. The clause in the text is defective in not providing a specific penalty for a breach of it. Disfranchisement, or a deprivation of all the rights of a citizen, seems the most appropriate punishment that could be applied, since it renders the seduction useless to those who were the authors of it, and disgraceful to the person seduced.

(3) Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution

§ 1346. The other clause, as to the acceptance of any emoluments, title, or office, from foreign governments, is founded in a just jealousy of foreign influence of every sort. Whether, in a practical sense, it can produce much effect, has been thought doubtful. A patriot will not be likely to be seduced from his duties to his country by the acceptance of any title, or present, from a foreign power. An intriguing, or corrupt agent, will not be restrained from guilty machinations in the service of a foreign state by such constitutional restrictions. Still, however, the provision is highly important, as it puts it out of the power of any officer of the government to wear borrowed honours, which shall enhance his supposed importance abroad by a titular dignity at home. It is singular, that there should not have been, for the same object, a general prohibition against any citizen whatever, whether in private or public life, accepting any foreign title of nobility. An amendment for this purpose has been recommended by congress; but, as yet, it has not received the ratification of the constitutional number of states to make it obligatory, probably from a growing sense, that it is wholly unnecessary.


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