State Title of Nobility

No State shall...grant any Title of Nobility.

Article I, Section 10, Clause 1

Like the corresponding prohibition on federal titles of nobility in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, the prohibition on state titles of nobility was designed to affirm and protect the republican character of the American government. Both provisions were carried forward from Article VI of the Articles of Confederation, which had forbidden "the United States in Congress assembled," as well as "any of them," to "grant any title of nobility."

Even before the Articles, states had renounced the power to grant titles. David Ramsey, the eighteenth-century historian of the American Revolution, reported that at the time of independence, the states "agreed in prohibiting all hereditary honours and distinctions of ranks" in order to provide "farther security for the continuance of republican principles in the American constitution." The History of the American Revolution (1789). American state legislatures, he further observed, were "miniature pictures of the community," representing persons of all stations and classes rather than confining their membership to persons of noble rank. James Madison also found in The Federalist No. 39 that "the general form and aspect" of American governments could only be "strictly republican": "[i]t is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination...to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." Given the social and political circumstances of the United States at the time of the Founding, therefore, it is not surprising that the Constitution's prohibition on state titles of nobility was uncontroversial: as Madison wrote tersely in The Federalist No. 44, the prohibition "needs no comment." What is perhaps surprising, then, is that it was thought necessary at all.

The answer may be that the Founders feared that, without adequate precautions, the republican venture might fail. "[W]ho can say," Madison asked in The Federalist No. 43, "what experiments may be produced by the caprice of particular States, by the ambition of enterprising leaders, or by the intrigues and influence of foreign powers?" Before the French Revolution, republican governments were rare: they existed only in such countries as Holland, Poland, or Venice, and even there only (as Madison argued in The Federalist No. 39) in attenuated or precarious forms. The existence of genuinely republican institutions, made possible by the absence of a hereditary aristocracy, was the hallmark of American exceptionalism. Conscious of that fact, the Founders sought to ensure, chiefly by the architectural features of the Constitution, but also by such minor clauses as the prohibitions on titles, that the American "political experiment on the capacity of mankind for self-government" would succeed.

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Robert J. Delahunty
Associate Professor of Law
University of St. Thomas School of Law