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Trump’s Defense of Taking Foreign Money Is Historically Illiterate

Roundup
tags: Trump, emoluments



Joshua Zeitz, a Politico Magazine contributing editor, has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

Did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison sell agricultural products to a foreign government “instrumentality?”

It’s hard to say, since their surviving plantation records don’t speak to the question. But the Department of Justice, which is defending Donald Trump against a suit filed by various parties including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), argues that it’s quite likely they did – and this assertion, seemingly arcane more than 200 years later and given the tumultuous state of the world, is key to the all-important question of whether President Trump is breaking the law. ...

Legal consideration aside, the DOJ’s motion is sorely deficient in its use of history. The question isn’t whether James Madison sold crops to a foreign state entity. (We don’t know.) Rather, it’s why the founders bothered to draft the emoluments clause in the first place, and what ideological worldview guided their thinking. The answer isn’t one that the current president or his lawyers would welcome.

The Emoluments Clause reflected common republican (small ‘r’) wisdom. The founders believed that the new nation should be governed by men who enjoyed sufficient economic wherewithal to place the common good above private, pecuniary concerns. They valued disinterestedness, virtue and independence and feared the day that someone beholden to a foreign or domestic economic power might hold high office.

The Emoluments Clause was a product of the founders’ shared republican ideology. And Donald Trump is the eventuality they feared above all.

The generation of American leaders that fomented the revolution and established the new country shared a common intellectual framework. Grounded in the 18th-century ideology of English Whig opposition to the governing elite at Westminster – an ideology that was itself rooted in the classical Greek and Roman republican tradition – this political dogma was radical in its day. It assumed that society was organic – comprised of men and women of shared background, needs and concerns – and that public affairs should be governed by a natural elite who were independent of economic or political coercion and who would have no trouble subordinating private needs to the commonweal. In a small, relatively homogenous nation comprised mainly of settlers (or descendants of settlers) from northern Europe, concentrated along the eastern coastline, and predominately agrarian, it was easy to believe that there was even such a thing as a commonweal. ...



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