Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
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Head of State Gifts

The tradition of gifts exchanged between heads of state is as old as civilization itself, with its history predating the written records of mankind. At times, relations between nations are strained as different cultures and national interests confront each other. As the way to avoid unnecessary quarrels and disagreements, rules for conduct among sovereign states developed through the years. The practice of diplomacy provides the means to resolve differences and to preserve national honor without resorting to violence. State meetings provided the avenues of diplomatic communication between nations, allowing sovereigns to discuss matters of mutual interest according to the prescribed forms of diplomatic form. The gifts exchanged were part of the ceremonial nature of the public role of summit diplomacy.

The practice of an exchange of gifts between sovereigns is illustrated vividly in the 16th century account by the English chronicler, Rafael Holinshed. He went to France to record the meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England in 1520. The meeting was arranged to work out some of the significant differences existing between France and England. Holinshed recorded the meeting of the two kings as taking place on the "Field of Cloth of Gold", because the fiercely competitive display of jewels, chains of gold, and garments made from cloth of gold and silver worn by the lords and ladies in the two royal entourages.

The sovereigns moved cautiously around the explosive issues that divided the two nations while participating in a lengthy ritual of friendship and amity. Holinshed reported that the two kings exchanged "pleasant talke, banqueting, and lovying devices." Following the dictates of diplomatic practice they participated in a show of friendship which preserved the image of goodwill, leaving open for the future the opportunity to discuss the problems that divided them.

Our historical antecedents have been shaped by our form of government. Beginning with our first president, it was a custom that was later made into law, that a president accepts gifts on behalf of the American people and may ceremonially use or display them in the White House during his administration. The gifts then remain the property of the government and must be housed and maintained by a federal agency -- such as a presidential library, the Smithsonian Institution, or the Department of State.

Gifts of State or gifts for foreign leaders are a constant consideration for each President and each decides on a particular gift suitable for a particular guest. In other words, there isn't one official U.S. Gift of State.

The Carters asked state governors to contribute an item native to their state that could be a special gift for a foreign leader. A variety of gifts were given: Williamsburg silver dishes from Virginia and hand-woven woolen shawls from Kentucky. Books which appealed to a visitor's special interest were selected, as well as leather bound photographic albums documenting their visit. Steuben crystal, Boehm pieces and china plates decorated with Winslow Homer paintings were also given.

From Symbols of Diplomacy: Head of State Gifts by Ann Bethel of the Ronald Reagan Library.


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