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Why Jeff Sessions has Philly’s Ben Franklin to thank for that gifts question

The very Philadelphia phrase “corrupt politician” and a diamond-encrusted present.

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Ben Franklin was about to leave France and return to Philadelphia in 1785. He’d been abroad for the better part of the last several years, serving as an ambassador to America’s foremost ally, and was well-liked over there by the women — obviously — and the leadership.

So, per French custom, King Louis XVI gave Franklin a parting gift, a very generous parting gift. The Founding Father and Philly icon received, as author Zephyr Teachout recounts in Corruption In America, a portrait of the king surrounded by 408 diamonds. The portrait happened to be emblazoned on a golden case used to hold snuff, finely-ground tobacco meant to be inhaled.

And everyone in the United States freaked out.

This 232-year-old controversy has made its way back into the news in the last month and especially this week because of Donald Trump. The possibility that Trump could receive payments from foreign governments through his stake in the Trump Organization without approval from Congress is arguably banned by the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, and his pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said he believes the clause should apply to the president.

For all the talk we partially have Franklin to thank. He spurred the creation of the Emoluments Clause when he begat a long-lasting tradition in Philadelphia politics by drawing accusations that the incredibly lavish gift was inappropriate — becoming, in effect, the city’s first famous corrupt politician.  

It probably sounds outrageous to call the guy who helped build the Constitution corrupt, but plenty of leaders would have agreed in the late 18th century. Franklin’s respect for France had raised enough red flags that he was nearly recalled from his post in Paris twice. According to Teachout’s book, Sam Adams worried Franklin had turned into a Tory, i.e. someone who favored the king of England over Democracy, and fellow diplomat Arthur Lee called him the “most corrupt of all corrupt men.”

Americans in government were vehemently opposed to gifts at this time. They were trying to separate their new democracy from the imperialism of the British and felt gifts from a foreign king brought a whiff of old monarchy into the states. Plus the gift was arguably illegal.  

The Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the Constitution, banned any “any person holding any office of profit or trust under the United States” from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign State.” Franklin was in a difficult position. Not accepting the gift could have hurt relations with France, but keeping it would’ve created a situation in which he’d appear to be indebted to the king. He went to the Continental Congress with his gift, and the congressmen ruled he could keep the diamond-encrusted portrait.

In 1787, the Second Continental Congress (of which Franklin was a member), made an Emoluments Clause for the Constitution. It kept the same basic structure of what had been part of the Articles of Confederation and added, perhaps as a hat tip to Franklin, language legalizing the acceptance of gifts if they were approved by Congress.      

Franklin’s ambassador gift controversy has shades of what we’ve seen from the latest batch of corrupt Philadelphia politicians. Take former Congressman Chaka Fattah. He’s on his way to prison in part for a bribery scandal involving a friend who wanted to become an ambassador.  

For former traffic court judge Thomasine Tynes, the parallels run even closer. She accepted a diamond tennis bracelet as a gift from informant Tyron B. Ali and went to prison.  

Seth Williams, the district attorney who prosecuted Tynes, got in trouble for another gift scandal last year. He failed to report six figures worth of legal gifts between 2010 and 2015.  

And the longtime Philadelphia tradition started by Ben Franklin had continued.