Unratified Amendments: Titles of Nobility

This is the second installment of a series about unratified constitutional amendments. Today we’re looking at an amendment proposed during the lead-up to the War of 1812 that sought to bar U.S. citizens from accepting titles of nobility. 

The U.S. Constitution has a Titles of Nobility clause that prohibits the federal government from granting titles of nobility and restricts government officials from receiving gifts, emoluments, offices, or titles from foreign states without Congress’s consent. 

Section of the United States Constitution referencing titles of nobility, 9/17/1787. (National Archives Identifier 1667751)

Also known as the “Emoluments Clause,” it was written to prevent federal officeholders from being corrupted by foreign entities. However, it does not prevent all U.S. citizens from accepting titles of nobility from royalty and opens the door for such action with Congress’s consent. 

During the Constitution’s ratification, several states proposed amendments that would either forbid Congress from granting consent or would have eliminated the “without the consent of Congress” clause. While the first Congress discussed the issue, it was not among the proposed amendments that eventually became the Bill of Rights. 

New York’s Ratification of the Constitution with proposed amendments, 7/26/1788. One of the proposed amendments strikes “without the Consent of the Congress” from the Titles of Nobility clause. (National Archives Identifier 24278854)

In the lead-up to the War of 1812 with Great Britain, there was some anxiety about European influence on the United States’ nascent republic. In 1810, Senator Philip Reed of Maryland introduced a constitutional amendment modifying the Titles of Nobility Clause.

Senate Report on the draft Titles of Nobility amendment, 1810. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

In order for an amendment to pass Congress, both houses must approve it by two-thirds majority. On April 27, 1810, the Senate approved the amendment by a vote of 19–5, and on May 1, 1810, the House of Representatives approved it by a vote of 87–3—both well above the necessary super majority.

The final text of the amendment read: 

If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain, any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress, accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States, and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them. 

The amendment was then sent to the state legislatures for ratification but never reached the three-fourths threshold to be added to the Constitution.  Had enough states ratified it, it would have become the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Because the amendment was passed before Congress began the practice of setting a time limit for ratification, the amendment technically can still be ratified if 38 states in total adopted it.

Even though an insufficient number of states ratified the amendment, there was confusion over its status throughout the 19th century, and it appeared in a limited number of printed versions of the Statutes at Large, printed copies of the Constitution, and other publications. 

In 1817, the amendment appeared in copies of the Constitution printed for members Congress. Representative Weldon Nathaniel Edwards proposed a resolution on December 31, 1817, asking the President to provide the House with the number of states which have ratified the amendment. (Annals of Congress, National Archives)

Because the Archivist of the United States has statutory responsibility to certify constitutional amendments, the National Archives looked into the issue in 1994. The Archives concluded it only has authority to determine whether sufficient notices of ratification have been received from three-fourths of the current number of states. Since the country has 50 states, 38 state ratifications would be needed for the amendment to become law. 

The next time Congress tried to amend the Constitution was 50 years later, in the years before the Civil War, and is the subject of our next blog: the failed amendment to protect the institution of slavery. 

6 thoughts on “Unratified Amendments: Titles of Nobility

    1. Harry is not a US citizen and wouldn’t be covered anyway. The proposed amendment doesn’t say a titled person cannot live here.

      Meghan, however, would be effected, as would their children. She did not renounce her citizenship when she joined the Royal Family that enslaved her ancestors. And, of course, she would characterize any attempt to pass it now as a “racist” act directed at her and her defenseless children (and probably rightly so). And Harry could apply for US citizenship at any time and retain his titles, assuming the Royal Family would let him and his do so.

    1. Since the amendment didn’t pass, you can remain an American citizen and hold a title of nobility. However, according to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot bestow titles of nobility.

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