The Constitution’s, count them, not one but three references to “Emoluments” within its seven original articles aren’t dusty legalisms in the constitutional attic…unless we make them so. Let’s dust the words off and look through the broader lens of constitutional meaning.
The word “emolument” may sound old timey, but the principle it ties to is not at all. Among American democracy’s ethical ideals, sworn to by constitutional oath, is that the holders of executive, legislative and judicial office shall, in the exercise of their enumerated and implied powers, serve the Constitution, not personal profit.
One of the three emolument references relates to senators and representatives (Article 1, Section 6), one to any “person holding any office of profit or trust” which would include congress and the president (Article 1, Section 9), and one to the president (Article 2, Section 1). Collectively, the triad covers not only office-leveraged, personal profiteering in foreign affairs (“any king, prince or foreign state”) but also office-leveraged, personal profiteering by the president in domestic affairs. Article 2 first says the president “shall receive” a “compensation” for his services in office which can’t be increased or decreased while in office. Then Article 2 goes on to say emphatically, “he shall not receive” while in office “any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.” In effect, the Constitution says: here’s your paycheck from America, that’s it; don’t leverage your presidential power for profits from foreign states, the United States, or the individual states. (We should say no thanks to presidential offers to work for a dollar, lest the waiver of “compensation” be felt as a green light to emoluments that can exceed the fixed salary.)
The generation that ratified the Constitution was fed up with emoluments. They had suffered under a monarchical system that ran on a vast network of emoluments, perks and privileges of a presumptive officialdom. The new constitutional Republic sought to install popular sovereignty in place of the emoluments systems and usurpations of King George III.
It followed from America’s revolutionary point of departure that a first office paradigm for the American presidency would be George Washington and his ethic of personal sacrifice, starting with the Revolutionary War. Mount Vernon gave way to Valley Forge. Personal sacrifice undergirded the Commander in Chief’s power. A Commander in Chief would ask other Americans to risk everything, including their lives in defense of America. If the Commander in Chief was interested in his own emoluments, on what firm ground would his command of sacrifice rest?
President Washington understood that his office was not really his. It was We the People’s office. That’s what popular sovereignty means. The “no emoluments” ethic of the Constitution isn’t just the equivalent of a modern-day corporation’s “conflict of interest” policy. The Constitution is much more than a legalistic or political code of do’s and dont’s. The Constitution’s theme of no emoluments ties to the moral core of what a constitutional presidency is, not just ideally, but in the real world experiences of a great nation, a nation made greater by Lincoln and other (if lesser) self-sacrificing Commanders in Chief.