State Title of Nobility

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

State Title of Nobility

Article I, Section 10, Clause 1

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

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 Ramsay, the eighteenth-century historian of the American Revolution, reported that at the time of independence the states “agreed in prohibiting all hereditary honours and distinction 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 that rested, as Madison said, “on the capacity of mankind for self-government” would succeed.

The defense of a republican polity led some of the state ratifying conventions in 1788 to propose amendments that would have stiffened the prohibition on titles, such as deleting the exception in the clause that allows Congress to consent to a state grant of a title of nobility. In addition, the fear that foreign immigrants already possessing titles might retain them led Congress in 1795 to forbid naturalization to a titled foreigner unless he formally renounced his title. 1 Stat. 414 (1795).

In 1810, Congress went further. In their long political and military contest, both Great Britain and Napoleonic France had sought to induce the United States to take sides. In response, Congress with near unanimity passed an amendment to the Constitution that would have revoked the citizenship of any person, whether natural born or naturalized, who accepted or retained a foreign title or emolument. The amendment had no congressional consent exception for titles although it did for emoluments. Eleven of the then required thirteen states ratified the amendment and, for a while, it was mistakenly listed as “The Thirteenth Amendment” in the United States Statutes at Large, prompting an 1817 House resolution and a follow-up presidential enquiry that corrected the error.

Robert Delahunty

Associate Professor, University of St. Thomas School of Law