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.

Key Takeaways

  • 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 is derived from the Latin term "emolumentum," which could mean either effort or labor, or benefit, gain, or profit.
  • 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.
  • The Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution seeks to prevent foreign influence, domestic influence, and influence of one branch of government on another.

Understanding an Emolument

The word "emolument" is derived from the Latin term "emolumentum," which had a dual meaning. On the one hand, it meant effort or labor. The other meaning was a benefit, gain, or profit. It may have originally meant the sum paid to a miller for grinding a customer's wheat.

Emoluments can vary depending on the type and length of service being performed. The word is archaic and little used today, except in legal contexts, particularly when it pertains to the Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which was established in order to safeguard the nation from corruption, foreign influence, and any other influence not in the best interest of the country.

Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution

Emolument is commonly used in 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 "Foreign Emoluments Clause," since it forbids U.S. officeholders from accepting "any present, Emolument, office, or title" from a foreign country.

There is also a "Domestic Emoluments Clause" (Article II, Section 1) that states:

"The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them."

There's also a third clause that mentions emoluments, known as the "Ineligibility Clause" (Article 1, Section 6).

"No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office."

Purpose of the Emoluments Clause

The idea behind the Emoluments Clause is to prevent certain individuals, primarily those in a government office, from personally profiting from their unique and elevated position in society.

The Foreign Emoluments Clause is in place to prevent foreign influence in the U.S. government and any other corruption. It derives from the practice of gift-giving that European officials used to practice when visiting foreign leaders. In this manner, the prevention of receiving a gift or any other compensation removes any influence on the would-be recipient of the gift.

The purpose of the Domestic Emoluments Clause is to preserve the independence of the President, and similarly, remove any influence on them by the ability to adjust their salary.

The Ineligibility Emoluments Clause serves a similar function, primarily to separate the branches of power, and to prevent Presidential influence on the legislature.

History of the Emoluments Clause

St. George Tucker, a late 18th- and early 19th-century professor of law, traced the rationale behind the Emoluments Clause to the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642–1651), when "almost all [Charles II] 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. He said, "One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption."

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 approved the gifts after the fact, temporarily waiving the law. 

For example, Louis XVI gave a diamond-encrusted portrait of himself to Benjamin Franklin in 1785. Two years later, the Emoluments Clause explicitly mentioned Congress's 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. 

Emoluments Clause Lawsuits

Since 2016, three lawsuits have been filed against President Donald Trump, alleging violations of the Foreign Emoluments clause related to payments by foreign governments for services at Trump-owned properties or licensing agreements with Trump business entities.

To date, one suit has been dismissed and then later reversed, reinstated, and remanded to a district court. Two other cases are still pending. Based on our research, Donald Trump seems to be the only president to date who has faced accusations of violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause.