What is an Emolument

An emolument is compensation, based on time and length of activity, for employment, services or holding office and is generally used in a legal context. Emolument can vary depending on the type and length of service being performed.


Emolument is derived from the Latin term "emolumentum," which had a dual meaning: effort or labor, on the one hand; and benefit, gain or profit, on the other. It originally meant the sum paid to a miller for grinding a customer's wheat. The word is archaic and little used today, except in legal contexts.

The Emoluments Clause

One context in which the term is commonly used is constitutional law, where it refers to article I, section 9 of the U.S. Constitution:

"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."

Article I, section 9 of the U.S. Constitution is often referred to as the "Emoluments Clause," since it forbids U.S. officeholders from accepting "any present, emolument, office, or title" from a foreign country.

History of the Emoluments Clause

St. George Tucker, a late 18th- and early 19th-century historian, traces the rationale behind the Emoluments Clause to the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642-1651), when "almost all [Charles II's] officers of state were either actual pensioners of the court of France, or supposed to be under its influence, directly, or indirectly, from that cause." Alexander Hamilton expressed concern that the same situation could occur in the newly formed United States: "One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption."

A portion of the original text of article I, section 9. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Prior to the drafting of the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation contained a version of the Emoluments Clause (Article VI). But when the monarchs of Spain and France made lavish gifts to American diplomats, Congress waived the law. For example, Louis XVI gave a diamond-encrusted portrait of himself to Benjamin Franklin in 1785. Three years later, the emoluments explicitly mentioned Congress' ability to approve gifts, which the Articles of Confederation had not addressed. During World War II, Congress passed a law permitting members of the military to accept foreign decorations; Denmark's King Christian X, for example, knighted Dwight D. Eisenhower and inducted him into the 600-year-old Order of the Elephant.