Whether used to strategically gain diplomatic favor with foreign leaders, reward historic acts of heroism, or promote our nation’s cultural riches, the tradition of presidential gift giving has served an important, if not controversial, role in our modern society.
Join us as we explore how this long-standing custom has produced some of America’s most exquisite and historically significant objets d’art.
The Tradition of Foreign Exchange
Throughout history, kings, dignitaries, and heads of state have ceremoniously exchanged gifts to engender trust and promote peaceful coexistence. But gift-giving hasn’t always been to the advantage of the receiver. Like the famed Trojan horse or the King of Siam’s white elephants, gifts have been historically used as strategic tools to manipulate, burden, and humiliate.
It’s no wonder that a young and idealistic America wanted no part in this ancient ritual, going as far as banning it in The Articles of the Confederation in 1787. This exchange of gifts, traditionally a lavish display of wealth and power, reminded the early founders of the aristocratic control that they were so vehemently trying to escape. Despite their strict democratic principles, however, they quickly realized that the outright refusal of these gifts, which continued to be sent, would offend important allies and negatively impact foreign affairs. An amendment was added to allow the acceptance of these gifts pending congressional approval. It aimed to prevent conflicts of interest and potential briberies. Since then, Congress has further simplified and streamlined the process and, thus, every United States president, from George Washington to Donald Trump, has received, accepted, and reciprocated a foreign gift.
From a handmade wooden box full of seeds from the White House garden to a silver Tiffany picture frame, gifts given by the president of the United States tend to be practical and beautiful in their simplicity. They often lack the extravagance of gifts received from foreign leaders, but this is by design. The president is limited to a budget of $2,000 and, therefore, must carefully choose an object of significance, while also considering the cultural norms and personal interests of the receiver.
Rewarding Historic Acts of Heroism
Perhaps even more important than the relationship established and maintained between leaders is the relationship established and maintained between a leader and his or her governed people. In addition to the foreign exchange of gifts, United States presidents also have a long-standing tradition of presenting gifts to reward and glorify historic acts of heroism. Recipients of these awards vary from citizens and military personnel to non-citizens who act heroically and for the benefit of the American people.
Made in America
As one may be quick to surmise, gifts given by the president of the United States, regardless of the recipient, must be American made. This not only supports American craft companies, such as the renowned Tiffany & Co. and Steuben Glass Works, but also ensures the future of the decorative arts in the U.S. This tradition also allows new innovations and techniques to be appreciated on the global stage.
While many countries are steadfast in sticking to this rule to promote their own cultural riches, mistakes have been made and controversies have ensued. In 2012, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, presented President Barack Obama with a beautifully crafted sportsman’s table. It eventually came to light that, despite being designed in Britain, it was made in China, which caused people to question the future of Britain’s manufacturing industry. This incident illustrates not only the importance of presidential gifts, but also how a single gift can reflect on the country as a whole.
Presidential gifts are incredibly important objects that hold a significant piece of American history. They represent a perfect slice of time in which diplomatic efforts were made to move the country forward. They reflect the inner motivations of both the gift-giver and receiver and showcase the very best side of the United States.
These objects of unequal renown are not only perfect for a collector of history, but a collector of American craftsmanship. Discover more beautiful and historic objets d’art on our website.