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Gifts from Foreign Dignitaries

As president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson maintained a strict policy of not accepting valuable gifts from foreign dignitaries. In 1806, he explained his position: "I had laid it down as law for my conduct while in office, & hitherto scrupulously observed, to accept of no present beyond a book, a pamphlet, or other curiosity of minor value; as well to avoid imputations on my motives of action, as to shut out a practice susceptible of such abuse."1

Certain circumstances might call for an adjustment of policy. In one famous incident in 1805, the Tunisian ambassador presented the president with four Arabian horses. Jefferson deemed acceptance appropriate because the sale of the horses would offset the American government's cost of the ambassador's visit.2

In at least one instance, Jefferson is known to have made an exception to his policy — when the Russian government presented the American consul, Levett Harris, with a bust of Tsar Alexander I. Harris in turn gave this bust to Jefferson. Explaining this departure from his own rule regarding gifts, Jefferson noted that his "particular esteem for the character of the Emperor, places his image in my mind above the scope of law."

In extending his appreciation to Harris, Jefferson went on to say that "these [thanks] are the more cordial, because of the value the bust derives from the great estimation in which it's original is held by the world .... it will constitute one of the most valued ornaments of the Retreat I am preparing for myself at my native home." The bust can be seen at Monticello today.3

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