The founders did not just, or even principally, fear a dependent and self-interested rabble. They believed that powerful despots could leverage their economic and political power to pull strings. They looked with disgust at the random patronage that British nobles bestowed on their supplicants: titles, leaseholds, franchises and contracts. They detected a similar pattern in the way that colonial governors doled out favor – courtesy of the favor they enjoyed, in turn, from their sponsors in London – to “fawning parasites and cringing courtiers,” as Samuel West, a Massachusetts clergyman and patriot, described the dynamic. John Adams similarly frowned on the dependence of weak actors on the “Passions and Prejudices, the Follies and Vices of great Men in order to obtain their Smiles, Esteem and Patronage and consequently their favours and Preferments.” Such lowly sorts had no business governing free men.
Like early restrictions on the franchise, and like the Electoral College – that arcane political instrument that entrusted the selection of the president to a handful of elite white men who were in theory best equipped to exhibit republican virtue and disinterestedness – the Emoluments Clause was very much a product of the founding generation’s shared ideology. That ideology, rooted in the country opposition of English Whigs, rued the day when a foreign despot might influence America’s public affairs through economic exertion, patronage and flattery. Such was the stuff of the dark days of colonial subjugation. It should never intrude upon the noble experiment that was the American Constitution.
In other words, the Emoluments Clause was one of several founding devices that had just such a man as Donald Trump—whose complex business web makes him uniquely susceptible to foreign influence—in mind.