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The gift of history

Gift giving between nations and peo ples has been a sym bolic ges ture for cen turies. We asked William Fowler, Dis tin guished Pro fessor of His tory, to explore the most sig nif i cant and unusual gifts America and its leaders have received from other nations, as well as instances in which extra or di nary cir cum stances have led to global conflicts.

What comes to mind when you think about famous gift giving in American history?

One of the most significant gifts in our nation’s history is the Statue of Liberty from the people of France. It was originally intended to arrive in time for America’s centennial celebration in 1875-76, but because of delays it didn’t arrive until 1885. For the French, this gift meant more than just commemorating the American Revolution. French emperor Napoleon III had just been overthrown, and the gift also served as a reminder to the French people of liberty and equality.

Another example from earlier in American history involved President George Washington. He was a progressive farmer and had a notion in 1785 that mules made for better draft animals than horses because they were lower maintenance and stronger. But since America didn’t have any mules, he wrote to King Charles of Spain, who sent two female donkeys and a mule. Spain had just assisted America in the Revolutionary War. So Washington was the progenitor of the American mule.

There is another example during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Massachusetts was largely Federalist, but there was a strong Democratic-Republican Party contingent in Cheshire, Mass. The people there put together a huge cheese that was 13 feet in circumference and weighed 1,235 pounds. According to local newspapers, the milk came only from Republican cows. The cheese arrived for Jefferson on New Year’s Day, 1802.

How has the meaning of gift giving between nations and peoples evolved?

The whole business of gift giving is very symbolic. It’s a tradition that began out of monarchies, not seen as something that’s very Republican or Democratic. Nowadays, the gifts the U.S. president might receive belong to the nation and usually end up in a museum or archive. I think they’ve declined in importance.

Most of the gift giving in American history involved treaty-making; the largest number of treaties the U.S. has made is with native peoples, many of which were violated. In these treaties, gifts were almost always exchanged, a practice that America adopted from the British and Spanish in the Colonial period.

Could you name a few cases in which highly unusual events led nations to engage in war?

In the mid-18th century, Great Britain and Spain fought the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The countries were antagonistic to each other and a Spanish vessel captured a British smuggler named Captain Robert Jenkins. A Spanish officer sliced off Jenkins’ ear, but Jenkins preserved his ear and brought it back to England, where it was displayed in Parliament as an example of Spanish cruelty. This served as one of the reasons Great Britain later declared war.

One of the principle reasons America declared war on Great Britain in June 1812 was in retaliation for British Orders in Council, which restricted American trade in violation of our neutral rights. At the very moment America was declaring war—what came to be known as the War of 1812—the British were repealing the Orders in Council. But given the delay in communication across the Atlantic Ocean, America didn’t learn of the repeal until after the war declaration. So the war went on, largely because of pride and nationalism.

By Greg St. Martin

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