Legalese — Emoluments Clause

“Emolument” is another one of those words that has been popping up a lot on the news and in social media that has a very specific legal definition, so I thought I’d talk about it here.  It isn’t a word that is used in regular conversation so, unlike a lot of legalese, it isn’t a word that has a lay definition that is separate from a legal definition.  It is simply a word that is unfamiliar to a lot of us except from a civics class we might have taken in seventh grade and don’t remember a lot about.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, an emolument is “The profit arising from office or employment; that which is received as a compensation for services, or which is annexed to the possession of office as salary, fees, and perquisites; advantage; gain, public; or private. Webster.  Any perquisite, advantage, profit, or gain arising from the possession of an office.”

It is that last part, the “perquisite, advantage, profit, or gain arising from the possession of an office” to which the emoluments clause in the United States Constitution refers.  Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution says, “No title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

The founders of our country were trying very hard to distance themselves from an inherited monarchy.  This was to be a country in which we did not inherit our titles from our parents – we earned them by hard work and gaining the trust of our fellow citizen by gaining their votes.  The founding fathers did not want the leaders of our country to be beholden to any other countries or have any kind of divided loyalties.  So our country could not grant titles of nobility – there will never be a Duke or Dutchess, Prince or Princess of the United States.  And anyone holding office in the United States couldn’t accept anything of value from any foreign leader or government without the express permission of Congress.

Alexander Hamilton said in the Federalist Paper No. 22, “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.”  The emoluments clause was put into the Constitution to directly address this weakness.

It’s easy to see how this works on small levels.  If you have a small business, and you are in need of copier services, you are much more likely to use the business that provides copier services that brings you donuts once a month, or the copier service business that uses your business in exchange.  That’s what networking is, right?  You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.  The idea on a constitutional, federal governmental level is that if we take out the ability of anybody to scratch anybody else’s back, then the metaphorical copier services used will only be the coper services that provide the best value and the best service, and not the guy we like the best because he brings us donuts or gives us business in exchange.

Don’t get me wrong, I like donuts.  I like donuts a lot.  That’s exactly the problem – I can be bought with a Boston Crème, and that’s not always for the best.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice or political opinion.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  

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