A brief history of diplomatic gifts.

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April 2 2009 6:39 PM

The Executive Gift Exchange

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

A member of staff of US President Barack Obama carries a gift from Queen Elizabeth II. Click image to expand.
A member of President Barack Obama's staff carries a gift from Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II presented President Obama with a framed photograph of herself during his visit to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday. He in turn provided her with an iPod loaded with show tunes. Have U.S. presidents always exchanged gifts with foreign leaders?

Yes, but the early presidents weren't the most gracious recipients. The Framers viewed the ancient custom of diplomatic gift exchange as a temptation to corruption and forbade the practice completely in the Articles of Confederation. They soon realized the prohibition would offend important allies, though, so they included Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 in the Constitution—permitting officials to accept gifts from foreign leaders or foreign states only with congressional approval.

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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.

Congress initially approved most gifts on an individual basis. Until the mid-20th century, approved gifts could become the recipient's personal property, unless they were expressly donated to the state. In 1966, Congress overhauled the system so that legislators did not have to approve individual gifts. Today, the president (and other officials) may accept most gifts worth $335 or less without congressional oversight and must turn over more valuable gifts to the government.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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