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