Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution (known as the Emoluments Clause) reads:
“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.”
University of St. Thomas School of Law Associate Professor of Law Robert J. Delahunty’s essay on the Heritage Guide to The Constitution is worth reading for an understanding of this obscure provision Article VI of the Articles of Confederation was the source of the Constitution’s prohibition on federal titles of nobility and the so-called Emoluments Clause. The clause sought to shield the republican character of the United States against corrupting foreign influences.
The prohibition on federal titles of nobility—reinforced by the corresponding prohibition on state titles of nobility in Article I, Section 10, and more generally by the republican Guarantee Clause in Article IV, Section 4—was designed to underpin the republican character of the American government. In the ample sense James Madison gave the term in The Federalist No. 39, a republic was “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during good behavior.”
Republicanism so understood was the ground of the constitutional edifice. The prohibition on titles of nobility buttressed the structure by precluding the possibility of an aristocracy, whether hereditary or personal, whose members would inevitably assert a right to occupy the leading positions in the state.
Further, the prohibition on titles complemented the prohibition in Article III, Section 3, on the “Corruption of Blood” worked by “Attainder[s] of Treason” (i.e., the prohibition on creating a disability in the posterity of an attained person upon claiming an inheritance as his heir, or as heir to his ancestor). Together these prohibitions ruled out the creation of certain caste-specific legal privileges or disabilities arising solely from the accident of birth.
In addition to upholding republicanism in a political sense, the prohibition on titles also pointed to a durable American social ideal. This is the ideal of equality; it is what David Ramsey, the eighteenth-century historian of the American Revolution, called the “life and soul” of republicanism. The particular conception of equality denied a place in American life for hereditary distinctions of caste—slavery being the most glaring exception. At the same time, however, it also allowed free play for the “diversity in the faculties of men,” the protection of which, as Madison insisted in The Federalist No. 10, was “the first object of government.” The republican system established by the Founders, in other words, envisaged a society in which distinctions flowed from the unequal uses that its members made of equal opportunities: a society led by a natural aristocracy based on talent, virtue, and accomplishment, not by an hereditary aristocracy based on birth. “Capacity, Spirit and Zeal in the Cause,” as John Adams said, would “supply the Place of Fortune, Family, and every other Consideration, which used to have Weight with Mankind.” Or as the Jeffersonian St. George Tucker put it in 1803: “A Franklin, or a Washington, need not the pageantry of honours, the glare of titles, nor the pre-eminence of station to distinguish them….Equality of rights…precludes not that distinction which superiority of virtue introduces among the citizens of a republic.”
Similarly, the Framers intended the Emoluments Clause to protect the republican character of American political institutions. “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.” The Federalist No. 22 (Alexander Hamilton). The delegates at the Constitutional Convention specifically designed the clause as an antidote to potentially corrupting foreign practices of a kind that the Framers had observed during the period of the Confederation. Louis XVI had the custom of presenting expensive gifts to departing ministers who had signed treaties with France, including American diplomats. In 1780, the King gave Arthur Lee a portrait of the King set in diamonds above a gold snuff box; and in 1785, he gave Benjamin Franklin a similar miniature portrait, also set in diamonds. Likewise, the King of Spain presented John Jay (during negotiations with Spain) with the gift of a horse. All these gifts were reported to Congress, which in each case accorded permission to the recipients to accept them. Wary, however, of the possibility that such gestures might unduly influence American officials in their dealings with foreign states, the Framers institutionalized the practice of requiring the consent of Congress before one could accept “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from…[a] foreign State.”
Like several other provisions of the Constitution, the Emoluments Clause also embodies the memory of the epochal constitutional struggles in seventeenth-century Britain between the forces of Parliament and the Stuart dynasty. St. George Tucker’s explanation of the clause noted that “in the reign of Charles the [S]econd 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.” As these remarks imply, the clause was directed not merely at American diplomats serving abroad, but more generally at officials throughout the federal government.
The Emoluments Clause has apparently never been litigated, but it has been interpreted and enforced through a long series of opinions of the Attorneys General and by less-frequent opinions of the Comptrollers General. Congress has also exercised its power of “Consent” under the clause by enacting the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, which authorizes federal employees to accept foreign governmental benefits of various kinds in specific circumstances.
Another fascinating read on the Emoluments Clause is the December 2016 Brookings Institute study titled The Emoluments Clause: Its Text, Meaning, and Application to Donald J. Trump co-authored by Norman L. Eisen, Richard Painter, and Laurence H. Tribe.