THE EMOLUMENTS CLAUSE – What did the Founders Intend?
Part II: Historical Context of Symbolic Gifts Received by Washington
Part II of this post attempts to place the two highly symbolic diplomatic gifts received by President Washington in 1790 – 1791, during critical moments of the French Revolution, into their proper historical context.
The symbolism and fraught timing of Washington’s receipt of a duplicate engraved portrait of Louis XVI:
President Washington received and kept a miniature engraving of King Louis XVI by Charles-Clement Bervic, based on a portrait by Antoine-Francois Callet. The duplicate engraving given to Washington was presented by newly appointed French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste chevalier de Ternant, on or about December 22, 1791.
The symbolic nature of the gift is immediately evident when looking at the elaborate frame, which was custom designed for Washington. The frame is described by the Mount Vernon website as follows:
It features his coat of arms at the center bottom and the initials “G” and “W” at the lower corners; the top corners display the King’s monogram, “L” and “XVI”, flanking the Bourbon arms, a crown, a Native American headdress and the French cap of liberty. This juxtaposition of the symbols of the two nations and their leaders emphasized the exceptional bond of friendship between France and the United States, established by their alliance in the American Revolutionary War.
By letter dated December 22, 1791 to French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste chevalier de Ternant, Washington wrote that he “accepted, with great pleasure, the new and elegant print of the King of the French”:
I accept, with great pleasure, the new and elegant print of the King of the French, which you have been so obliging as to send to me this morning as a mark of your attachment to my person. You will believe me, Sir, when I assure you, that I have a grateful and lively sense of the personal respect and friendship expressed in your favor which accompanied the Print, and that I am, with sentiments of sincere esteem and regard, Dear Sir, your most obedt Servt
First, it is useful to recognize that Ternant had served with Washington at Valley Forge. After the Battle of Monmouth, on September 25, 1778, Ternant was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and inspector of the troops in South Carolina and Georgia, with pay, by the Continental Congress. After Charleston was captured by the British, Ternant was taken prisoner in May of 1780. He was eventually freed in a prisoner exchange. In April of 1784 the Continental Congress promoted Ternant to the position of colonel, backdated to March of 1783.
Second, based on correspondence between Lafayette and Washington, it is clear that Washington was aware of Louis XVI’s capture at Varennes in June of 1791. As described by Washington in a letter dated September 10, 1791 to Lafayette, Washington had received information about the “important event” and was “in suspense as to what may have been the consequences of this event”:
The lively interest which I take in your welfare, my dear Sir, keeps my mind in constant anxiety for your personal safety amidst the scenes in which you are perpetually engaged. Your letter of the 6th of June by Monsieur de Ternant gave me that pleasure which I receive from all your letters, which tell me that you are well—But from the account you there gave it did not appear that you would be soon relieved from your arduous labours—and from the information we have received of an important event which has taken place since that time it does not appear likely that the clouds which have long obscured your political horizon will be soon dispersed. As yet we are in suspense as to what may have been the consequences of this event—and feeling, as we do in this country, a sincere regard for the french Nation, we are not a little anxious about them—Opinions we are not able to form here, therefore none can be given on the subject—But at any rate you may be assured, my dear Sir, that we do not view with indifference the happiness of so many millions.
Accordingly, Washington had knowledge of the tenuous position of King Louis XVI in late 1791 when Washington received the engraved copy of the King’s portrait. The National Assembly had abolished aristocratic titles a year earlier in June 1790. In June of 1791, Louis XVI and his family fled Paris in disguise trying to escape to the Austrian Netherlands, when they were stopped by Lafayette’s National Guard at Varennes.
Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to surmise that Washington may not have wanted to provoke a diplomatic incident in late 1791. He may also have wanted to avoid navigating the complexity and mixed messages that could have resulted from his refusal to accept the gift. As previously discussed, the gift itself was merely a duplicate engraved copy of a miniature portrait of Louis XVI, which was presented by the newly appointed French Ambassador, who had previously served under Washington during the Revolutionary War.
In less than a year, the French monarchy was abolished. France declared itself a Republic on September 21, 1792. In August of 1792, Jacobin incited mobs stormed the Tuileries in Paris and butchered the Swiss Guards defending the palace. Louis was executed for treason before a jubilant crowd of 20,000 on January 21, 1793. The execution of the Queen, Marie Antoinette, followed in October of 1793.
The symbolism and fraught timing of Washington’s receipt of a key to the Bastille from Lafayette:
The second example of a diplomatic gift received by Washington is Lafayette’s key to the Bastille that was delivered to Washington by Thomas Paine. In a thank you letter dated August 11, 1790, Washington described the symbolic key as a “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism.” Any suggestion that Washington was committing impeachable offenses by not returning this symbolic key is easily refuted by understanding the nature of Washington’s close relationship with Lafayette and the danger that Lafayette was facing after the Bastille was stormed in 1789.
Paine’s letter of May 1, 1790 to Washington further illustrates the symbolism of the Bastille key, which Paine described as an “early trophy of the Spoils of Despotism and the first ripe fruits of American principles transplanted into Europe.” Paine concluded that “the principles of America opened the Bastile is not to be doubted, and therefore the Key comes to the right place.”
In Washington’s letter to Lafayette expressing his “sincerest thanks” for the key, Washington added a post script. Washington explained that he was enclosing a pair of shoe buckles, not for their intrinsic value, but “as a memorial.” This exchange is highly suggestive of Washington’s understanding of the symbolic value of the Bastille key:
P.S. Not for the value of the thing, my dear Marquis, but as a memorial and because they are the manufacture of this City, I send you herewith a pair of shoe buckles.
Washington knew that in November of 1789, members of the French National Assembly famously began donating their silver shoe buckles to the French state. The National Assembly, searching for symbolic gestures, voted that members should only wear copper buckles. Members of the clergy who did not wear silver buckles donated an equivalent sum in silver.
It is also important to recognize the close relationship between Lafayette and Washington. Many historians have described Lafayette as a virtual adopted son to Washington. Lafayette’s father was killed in battle when Lafayette was a toddler. Lafayette began working with Washington when he was nineteen. In a letter dated August 23, 1790, Lafayette described Washington as “My Beloved General My Adoptive father.” For these reasons, it is problematic for Professor Tillman to seriously suggest that Washington violated the Emoluments clause by accepting a “token” from Lafayette, particularly at a time when Lafayette was facing danger in France.
By letter dated March 7, 1791 Lafayette explained the “Ocean of factions and Commotions of Every Kind” that led him to conclude that there was no end in sight to the “Revolutionary trouble” confronting France:
My dear General
Whatever Expectations I Had Conceived of a Speedy termination to our Revolutionary trouble, I Still am tossed about in the Ocean of factions and Commotions of Every Kind—for it is My fate to Be on Each Side, With Equal Animosity Attacked, Both By The Aristocratic, Slavish, Parliamentary, Clerical, in a Word By all Ennemies to my free and levelling doctrine, and on the other Side By the orleanoise, factious, Anti Royal, licentious, and Pillaging Parties of Every Kind, So that My Personal Escape from Amidst so Many Hostile Bands is Rather dubious…
In a letter dated July 28, 1791, Washington wrote that he had often contemplated the “great anxiety” and danger to which Lafayette was “personally exposed” given his “delicate situation” during the tumultuous times in France:
I assure you I have often contemplated, with great anxiety, the danger to which you are personally exposed by your peculiar and delicate situation in the tumult of the times, and your letters are far from quieting that friendly concern.
Washington concluded the letter by identifying the members of Washington’s cabinet who were also anxious for Lafayette’s safety:
Your friends in this country often express their great attachment to you by their anxiety for your safety.
Knox, Jay, Hamilton, Jefferson remember you with affection—but none with more sincerity and true attachment than, My dear Sir, Your affectionate
It has been suggested that the Congress would have had no occasion to consider the propriety of a diplomatic gift until 1798. Yet, Washington routinely forwarded correspondence to Congress, keeping both the House and Senate in the loop on foreign policy. For example, on March 5, 1792 Washington laid before Congress a translation of a letter from King Louis XVI “announcing to the United States of America his acceptance of the Constitution presented to him in the name of his nation.”
In fact, Congress considered and debated “Courtesies to France” in March of 1792. On March 10, 1792, the House approved the following motion:
That this House has received, with sentiments of high satisfaction, the notification of the King of the French, of his acceptance of the Constitution presented to him in the name of the Nation: And that the President of the United States be requested, in his answer to the said notification, to express the sincere participation of the House in the interests of the French Nation, on this great and important event; and their wish that the wisdom and magnanimity displayed in the formation and acceptance of the Constitution, may be rewarded by the most perfect attainment of its object, the permanent happiness of so great a People.”
Washington also periodically met with committees of Congress. For example, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, composed of James Madison, Thomas Tudor Tucker, John Francis Mercer, John Vining, and John Page, met with Washington to discuss French relations on March 12, 1792.
Washington’s receipt of the Bastille key was well publicized in the papers. After the war, the states of Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia granted Lafayette citizenship. Lafayette was commissioned with the rank of Major-General in the Continental Army. Click here for a link to
He was injured at the Battle of Brandywine where he showed extreme courage and loyalty to America. Not surprisingly, Lafayette named one of his sons, George Washington. Indeed, in 1794, when Lafayette was imprisoned in Europe, the Third Congress passed an Act Allowing to Major-General Lafayette his Pay and Emoluments while in the Service of the United States.
In summary, Washington did not violate the Emoluments clause by receiving “diplomatic gifts” of symbolic value, particularly given the “tumult of the times” during the height of the French Revolution. The miniature, duplicate, engraved reproduction of a portrait of Louis XVI, was gifted by Ambassador Jean-Baptiste chevalier de Ternant, a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and inspector of the troops in South Carolina and Georgia who served under Washington. After the war, in April of 1784, the Continental Congress promoted Ternant to the rank of colonel.
In the case of Lafayette’s Bastille key, Washington received the “token” gift from an American hero and citizen, who would later receive emoluments according to an Act of the Third Congress. It is also widely recognized that Lafayette was virtually an adopted son to Washington and to America. Additionally, Washington forwarded a reciprocal gift of American made shoe buckles to Lafayette, fully illustrating the symbolic nature of the gifts.
 “From George Washington to Ternant, 22 December 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0194. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 9, 23 September 1791 – 29 February 1792, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, p. 306.]
 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vo. XXVI, 1784: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293020542779;view=1up;seq=274
 “From George Washington to Lafayette, 10 September 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0361. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 515–517.]
 “To George Washington from Thomas Paine, 1 May 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0238 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 369–370.]
 “From George Washington to Lafayette, 11 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0112 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790 – 30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 233–235.]
 The shoe buckle vote was explained to Washington in a letter dated January 24, 1790 by Gouverneur Morris, who was visiting the French National Assumbly on November 20, 1789.
“To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 24 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0030 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 48–58.]
 Ron Chernow described Lafayette as Washington’s “most intimate protégé.” Washington: A Life (2010) at 331. Joseph Ellis describes the “deeply personal” relationship between Lafayette and Washington:
The bond of cordial affection established at Valley Forge grew into a mutual affinity and emotional attachment that made Lafayette, even more than aides like Hamilton and Laurens, Washington’s surrogate son. In the presence of Lafayette the famous Washington aloofness melted into pools of candor and intimacy, and the letters addressed to “My Dear Marguis” are the most expressive, playful, and unprotective in the entire Washington correspondence.
Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (2004) at 116.
 “To George Washington from Lafayette, 23 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0146 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790 – 30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 315–319.]
 “To George Washington from Lafayette, 7 March 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0293 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790 – 21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 518–521.]
 “From George Washington to Lafayette, 28 July 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0260 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 377–381.] 0
 The letter was translated by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
 “From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 5 March 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-10-02-0017 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 10, 1 March 1792 – 15 August 1792, ed. Robert F. Haggard and Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, pp. 25–26.]
 Joseph Gales, Sr., The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature, Second Congress, Comprising the period from Oct. 24, 1791 to March 2, 1793, inclusive, Washington, D.C. (1849), page 456.
 “Conversation with a Committee of the United States House of Representatives, 12 March 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-10-02-0045 [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 10, 1 March 1792 – 15 August 1792, ed. Robert F. Haggard and Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, pp. 87–89.]