In today’s Wall Street Journal, I have an op-ed, “Did George Washington Take ‘Emoluments’ “? It examines the first president’s extensive and hands-on business affairs to get a better handle on the nature of constitutionally prohibited “foreign emoluments.”
Here’s an excerpt (article requires a subscription):
Mr. Trump is not the first president to have business dealings with foreigners. That was actually George Washington, whose conduct in office has been a model for every president.
By the 1790s, Washington was wealthy primarily because of real estate — renting and selling his vast holdings. As with Mr. Trump’s hotels, Washington’s renters or purchasers could include foreigners.
The president received constant reports from his nephew and subsequent managers and wrote to them at least monthly… This belies the notion that the Constitution limits a president’s management of, or benefit from, his existing business ventures.
One letter written by Washington deserves great attention in the current debate. On Dec. 12, 1793, Washington wrote to Arthur Young, an officer of the U.K. Board of Agriculture, an entity newly created and funded by Parliament at the initiative of William Pitt. The president asked for Young’s help in renting out his Mount Vernon lands to secure an income for his retirement. Not finding customers in America, he wondered if Young, with his agricultural connections, could find and organize some would-be farmers in his home country and send them over.
The op-ed is drawn from a larger research project on Washington’s business interests and the prohibition on emoluments. Here, I’ll take the space to address possible limitations to this evidence. In particular, Washington insisted that his December 1793 letter to Young be kept private. (Prof. Seth Barrett Tillman has presented strong evidence of the allowance of business dealings from Washington’s public conduct in relation to the domestic emoluments clause.) He suggested that “in the opinion of others, there [may] be impropriety” in his solicitation but makes clear that he himself disagreed with that position.
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1 thought on ““George Washington was the first president to stay in the real estate business””
I suspect (as in most things) that we need to have checks and balances against our more venal tendencies but the moral restraint of the person in power is more important. Would Washington have sold access? Getting rent and selling property is a clear exchange – so is renting a hotel room at a Trump hotel. Selling a night in the Lincoln bedroom – that’s different, but we may not have a law against it. The hotel is Trump’s, the Lincoln bedroom is not his – or Obama’s or Clinton’s. I’d trust Washington’s instincts – Clinton’s or the Obama’s not so much. I don’t know about Trump, but he doesn’t seem in it for the money.
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