Why the Founders feared foreign influence in American politics


On Monday, President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin - then promptly sided with him. The meeting marked the culmination of two years of growing concern about Russian interference in the 2016 election and mounting fears that Russia is shaping U.S. foreign policy.

Fear of foreign interference in American affairs drove the founders to place certain safeguards in the Constitution, including the now-famous emoluments clause. Trump's behavior serves not just as a reminder of why those safeguards are necessary, but also as a reminder of the British king who inspired them: Charles II. In 1660, Charles brought the monarchy back to England after the collapse of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, a brief period of republican rule that ended shortly after Oliver Cromwell's death in 1658. Cromwell - victorious leader of Parliamentarian forces in the 1642-1651 Civil War between the crown, held by Charles I, and Parliament - failed to devise a satisfactory alternative to a mixed monarchy, and his authoritarian rule became increasingly unpopular. Parliament executed Charles I in 1649, but in the absence of any good alternative to succeed Cromwell, the Stuart heir to the throne, Charles II, was invited back.

The restoration of the monarchy was welcomed by a joyous population who hoped that civil war was put behind them and looked forward to the reopening of the theater and the return of horse racing. Parliament and crown were reunited, but the exact nature of their relationship was not explicitly defined. Charles took advantage of this ambiguous space to expand royal power whenever he could. Short on funds, Charles II looked for ways to augment his income and his power without going through Parliament.

He had reason to be grateful to French King Louis XIV, who had sheltered him and his family during their exile from England after the execution of his father. In addition, his beloved sister, Henrietta, was married to Louis' brother. Charles also understood that Louis' program of expanding French power in Europe required defeating the Dutch - which gave him an opening.

In 1662, in need of an infusion of cash, Charles sold the English interest in Dunkirk to Louis. In 1670, Henrietta acted as an intermediary in the negotiations for the Treaty of Dover between England and France to ally the two nations against the Dutch. This agreement led directly to the Third Anglo-Dutch War, which lasted from 1672 to 1674. Secret provisions gave an annual stipend to Charles to help close a budgetary gap and enable him to evade parliamentary oversight.

During a time when the principle of parliamentary supremacy was still in flux, Charles sold out his own country to the French, a breathtaking example of corruption by a head of state at the behest of a foreign actor.

A century later, the story of Charles II's treachery was on the minds of those crafting a new constitution for the United States.

During those deliberations, Gouveneur Morris and Charles Pinckney pointed to Charles as an example of a corrupt head of state, using his perfidy to argue for the emoluments and the impeachment clauses, as well as the participation of the Senate in ratifying treaties. During the debates on ratifying the constitution in the South Carolina legislature, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney cited Charles' sale of Dunkirk to Louis as a reason to make presidential treaty-making subject to senatorial advice and consent. And Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers underlined how Charles had fielded a standing army without respect to Parliament in the waning years of his reign.

That a scheming, feckless leader might sell out his own country was a very real threat in the minds of those tasked to create a constitutional framework for a new government. But our Constitution's safeguards against the danger of foreign corruption still exist, derived in part from the 18th-century memories of Charles' duplicity. It remains to be seen whether we have the political courage to use them or whether they will protect us.

Gail Savage is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland, specializing in modern Britain.