Gifts from Foreign Dignitaries

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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As President, Thomas Jefferson did not participate in the later 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 horses. Jefferson sold them at a public auction to offset the cost of the ambassador's visit.

However, he was human and he did make an exception in one instance. In Russia, tradition held the importance of giving gifts, and the Russian government gave the American consul, Mr. Harris, a bust of Alexander I. Mr. Harris in turn gave this bust to Jefferson in 1806. One possible explanation for Jefferson's accepting the gift is that he thought it was from Mr. Harris himself rather than the Russian government. Also, he was an admirer of Alexander and may not have wished to turn it down. The bust remains at Monticello today.

Footnotes

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