Have U.S. presidents always traded tchotchkes with foreign leaders?





Heads of state have been exchanging gifts since the beginning of recorded time. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt presented stone vessels emblazoned with the royal cartouche, a kind of monogram, to the neighboring Hittites in the second millennium BC. Gift exchange had become a ritualized part of diplomatic contact by the Middle Ages: During the Third Crusade, an emissary of Richard the Lionheart presented a flock of birds to the representative of Saladin by formally noting,"It is the custom of princes when they camp close to one another to exchange gifts." (In modern times, live animals are inappropriate diplomatic gifts, as President George W. Bush learned the hard way.) A 14th-century Muslim scholar also noted,"Very often, sovereigns linked by proximity exchange gifts involving that which is rarest in their respective lands." (He likely would have joined the chorus critiquing President Obama's choice of the ubiquitous iPod as a gift for the queen.)

Americans have never been particularly comfortable with this tradition. When Louis XVI gave Benjamin Franklin a snuffbox adorned with hundreds of diamonds in 1785, Franklin accepted the gift to avoid an ugly scene. The same year, John Jay accepted a horse from King Charles III of Spain in the process of negotiating a treaty. Congress recognized that returning the two gifts might cause a diplomatic row at a sensitive moment and so approved them retroactively.

Based on this experience, the Framers at the Constitutional Convention decided that full disclosure, rather than outright prohibition, was the appropriate course. President Washington appears to have taken this provision quite literally. When an emissary of the French Republic presented its new flag to Washington, he replied,"The transaction will be announced to Congress, and the colors will be deposited with [the] Archives." Thomas Jefferson refused to keep any gifts other than books, even if Congress approved. He auctioned several items and deposited the proceeds in the treasury.


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