Gideon M. Hart


This Article provides one of the first truly comprehensive accounts of the “Titles of Nobility Amendment.” The Titles of Nobility Amendment is one of only a handful of proposed amendments to the Constitution that were passed by Congress, but then not ratified by a sufficient number of states. The Amendment would have revoked the citizenship of any individual who accepted a “title of nobility or honor” or who accepted any “present, pension, office, or emolument” from any foreign state without congressional permission.

Despite its failure during the ratification process, the Amendment was printed in the 1815 version of the Statutes at Large as the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Amendment was widely believed to be part of the Constitution well into the late nineteenth century. In recent years, right-wing radicals have seized upon the Amendment, claiming that it was ratified and suppressed in a wide-ranging conspiracy and that it would bar lawyers from citizenship due to their use of the term “esquire.” Although a handful of recent articles have addressed these patently false claims, these articles have also misunderstood the Amendment, dismissing it as the product of xenophobia and petty politics.

This Article sets out to address these misconceptions by closely studying the Amendment’s historical context. In reality, the Amendment is an interesting hybrid of the rising fears during the decade preceding the War of 1812 that the United States would be recaptured and marginalized by European powers and of the long tradition of opposition to hereditary privilege in the United States. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, the United States was increasingly buffeted and threatened by the major European powers, particularly by Britain and France. Under great foreign pressure, individuals on both sides of the political spectrum became increasingly suspicious of each other’s loyalties and both parties regularly accused the other of secret collusion and cooperation with foreign states. A response to this perceived foreign threat, the Amendment was intended to prevent the recruitment of American officials and citizens by foreign states with titles, such as the Legion of Honor, or other attractive presents and offices. Today these fears seem far-fetched, but at the time there was a very real worry that the American experiment would be rotted from the inside-out through secret conspiracy and subversion by European powers itching to reestablish their dominance in the Americas. Although long misunderstood, the Amendment is an interesting piece of history and is one of the most intriguing near-Amendments to our Constitution.

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