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How far back does concern about foreign influence in the US go? All the way back

Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton.Cropped version of a portrait by John Trumbull (1756-1843)

How far back does concern about foreign influence in US politics go? All the way back.

The Founding Fathers were worried about the same things that many observers of President Trump are worried about today.

President Trump said earlier in the week that “I’d take it” if hostile powers offered incriminating information about an election opponent — and that he would not necessarily call the FBI.

The words sparked a firestorm of criticism from Democrats — and Republicans distanced themselves from the statement.

Trump appeared to backtrack Friday, saying he would “absolutely” inform law enforcement if he were approached.

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But his startling initial comments raised questions once again about his willingness to profit from the aid of a hostile foreign power.

To experts, the concern is nothing new.

“One of the Framers’ greatest fears” during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 “was foreign corruption,” Matt A. Vega, now a professor at Freed-Hardeman University, wrote in a 2011 article in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review.

“The Constitutions’ founders were intensely concerned about the prospect of foreign involvement in American politics. At the time, foreign corruption was a major concern because the newly independent United States was a small and relatively poor country. It was thought that elites — especially those in appointed office or in the Senate — might be seduced by baubles and titles to put favor towards other countries before patriotism,” Zephyr Teachout, now a professor at Fordham University Law School, wrote in a 2009 article in the Berkeley Journal of International Law.

“The Constitution contains several provisions demonstrating this fear of foreign infiltration,” including a prohibition on foreigners holding federal office, the requirement for a long period of residence before a foreigner can run for Congress, and that the president be a natural-born citizen, wrote Teachout, who ran unsuccessfully last year for New York attorney general.

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But let’s go straight to the sources. Here are a few of the many instances of the founders warning of the dangers of foreign influence:

“You are apprehensive of foreign Interference, Intrigue, Influence.—So am I—” — Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Dec. 6, 1787

“So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country.” — George Washington Farewell Address, Sept. 19, 1796

Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts “wished that in the future the eligibility [for congressmen] might be confined to Natives. Foreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no [expense] to influence them. Persons having foreign attachments will be sent among us & insinuated into our councils, in order to be made instruments for their purposes. Every one knows the vast sums laid out in Europe for secret services. He was not singular in these ideas. A great many of the most [influential] men in Massts. reasoned in the same manner.” — James Madison, notes of the Constitutional Convention, Aug. 13, 1787

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Alexander Hamilton warned, “Foreign powers also will not be idle spectators. They will interpose, the confusion will increase, and a dissolution of the Union will ensue.” — James Madison, notes of the Constitutional Convention, June 18, 1787

“Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 68

“One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. An hereditary monarch, though often disposed to sacrifice his subjects to his ambition, has so great a personal interest in the government and in the external glory of the nation, that it is not easy for a foreign power to give him an equivalent for what he would sacrifice by treachery to the state. The world has accordingly been witness to few examples of this species of royal prostitution, though there have been abundant specimens of every other kind. In republics, persons elevated from the mass of the community, by the suffrages of their fellow-citizens, to stations of great pre-eminence and power, may find compensations for betraying their trust, which, to any but minds animated and guided by superior virtue, may appear to exceed the proportion of interest they have in the common stock, and to overbalance the obligations of duty.” — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 22

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“An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the state to the acquisition of wealth. An ambitious man might make his own aggrandizement, by the aid of a foreign power, the price of his treachery to his constituents.” — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 75


John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.