Gifts from Foreign Dignitaries

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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As President, Jefferson did not start the tradition of keeping gifts from foreign dignitaries. He had a strict policy of not excepting valuable gifts.

He writes, "I had laid it down as a law for my conduct while in office, and hitherto scrupulously observed to accept of no present beyond a book, a pamphlet or other curiosity of minor value; as well to avoid imputation on my motives of action as to shut out a practice susceptible to such abuse."[1]

For example, in 1805, the Tunisian ambassador gave Jefferson some Arabian horsed. Jefferson sold them at a public auction to offset the cost of the ambassador's visit.

However, he was human and he made an exception. In Russia, tradition holds to give gifts and the Russian government gave the American consul, Mr. Harris, a bust of Alexander I. Mr. Harris gave this bust to Jefferson in 1806. Why did he accept this? One possible reason is that he thought it was a gift from Mr. Harris, not by the Russian government. Also, he admired Alexander not to turn it down. It still is at Monticello today.

Footnotes

  1. Jefferson to Levett Harris. April 18, 1806. L&B, 11:101.