About Our Constitution, a Series
Article 35 – The Un-ratified Amendment Proposed on May 1, 1810 – Titles of Nobility
By David Robert Wood
June 1, 2012
This proposed constitutional Amendment concerned the granting of “Titles of Nobility” to citizens of the United States by a foreign government. Following is the original text of this proposed Amendment:
If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honor, 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 May 1, 1810, proposed Amendment on “Titles of Nobility” has not been ratified by the requisite number of States and continues to be subject to ratification. It was proposed in the second session of the eleventh Congress by a simple Resolution, which was concurred to by both Houses of Congress on May 1, 1810, when it passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 87 to 3. It had previously passed the Senate by a vote of 19 to 5 on April 27, 1810. This proposed Amendment was originally introduced in the Senate by Phillip Reed of Maryland on January 18, 1810.
Following proposal, Secretary of State Robert Smith transmitted this proposed Amendment to the seventeen States for ratification consideration on January 15, 1811. To date, as best determined, this proposed Amendment has been ratified by twelve States, thirty-eight States now being necessary for Final Ratification — Maryland, December 25, 1810; Kentucky, January 29, 1811; Ohio, January 31, 1811; Delaware, February 2, 1811; Pennsylvania, February 6, 1811; New Jersey, February 13, 1811; Vermont, October 24, 1811; Tennessee, November 21, 1811; Georgia, December 13, 1811; North Carolina, December 23, 1811; Massachusetts, February 27, 1812; and New Hampshire, December 9, 1812.
This proposed Amendment was rejected by New York on March 12, 1812 (Senate), Connecticut on May 13, 1813, and Rhode Island on September 15, 1814.
In the late eighteenth century, during the formation of the U.S. government, “Titles of Nobility” were of particular concern to many and were considered to be distasteful and inappropriate. It was believed that “Titles of Nobility” recognized elitism, a concept generally disdained in the United States and adverse to the Declaration of Independence. Further, there was also a concern that gifts or emoluments by foreign principalities to U.S. government officers and officials would unduly influence such officers and officials.
Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution restricted the use of “Titles of Nobility,” providing that they will not be granted by the U.S. government. This Article also restricted governmental officers from accepting gifts, titles or compensation from any foreign nation, unless otherwise approved by Congress.
In support of the ratification of the Constitution in 1787–1788, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the prohibitions and restrictions included in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 were “the corner-stone of republican government.” Further, “for so long as they [“Titles of Nobility”] are excluded, there can never be serious danger that the government will be any other than that of the people.”
While ratifying the Constitution, a number of States believed that further restrictions on accepting titles of nobility or other emoluments were necessary. Six States specifically called for amending the Constitution so as to prohibit Congress from consenting to foreign titles of nobility or other emoluments that might be granted to government officers and officials. This would have resulted in an absolute prohibition on any public official from accepting such titles of nobility or other emoluments. In the first Congress, such additional restrictions were discussed, but no formal actions were taken.
Not until 1810 was the concern about “Titles of Nobility” again raised in the U.S. Congress. On January 18, 1810, Senator Phillip Reed from Maryland introduced a resolution to amend the Constitution by prohibiting any citizen, who has accepted a “Title of Nobility,” from holding any public office. Following its introduction, this resolution was further amended by stripping citizenship from individuals who had accepted titles of nobility, unless otherwise approved by Congress.
The history of the proposal of this Amendment is somewhat uncertain and has been the subject of speculation. Some believed that the resolution was due to the growing animosity of the general American public toward foreigners, leading up to the War of 1812. Others believed that the resolution was politically motivated against Elizabeth Patterson from a prominent Baltimore Republican family, with Senator Reed being a member of the Democratic Party.
Elizabeth Patterson was previously married to Jerome Bonaparte, a younger brother of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, from approximately 1803 to 1806. In 1805, a child, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte was born from their union and he was a citizen of the United States as a result of his mother’s citizenship; and notwithstanding that he was born in Great Britain where Patterson resided, being otherwise denied entry into France by Napoleon. In 1806, by a state decree issued by Napoleon, the marriage was annulled. Thereafter, Patterson, to be known as the “Duchess of Baltimore,” formally relinquished the use of the “Bonaparte” surname, returned to America and was granted an annuity by the French Government. It was also rumored that Patterson sought a formal “Title” from the French government although this seemed unlikely given her relationship with the French Government and the disdain of, and by, Napoleon.
Almost seven years after the Amendment’s proposal, and not knowing the status of its ratification, Congress passed a Resolution on December 31, 1817, requesting the President obtain State ratification information on this “13th article of the amendment.” In response on February 4, 1818, Secretary of State James Monroe reported that twelve States had ratified it, two States had rejected it, one State had not acted upon it and two States had not responded. Twelve ratifying States were then insufficient to constitute Final Ratification because, on that date, there were twenty States in the Union and three-fourths of the States would have been fifteen .
Notwithstanding the above, and for most of the nineteenth century, it was erroneously believed that this proposed Amendment had been fully ratified. In many publications, it was included as a ratified Amendment, even as late as 1896–1897 when it was indicated as ratified in House Document No. 353, Part 2, from the second session of the fifty-fourth Congress. This incorrect view likely occurred because of the mistaken belief that the State of South Carolina had ratified it. The South Carolina Senate did pass a ratifying resolution in 1811. However, this resolution was apparently not acted upon by the South Carolina House of Representatives, and was therefore not passed. South Carolina was one of the two non-responding States referenced in the February 1818, report by Secretary of State Monroe.
Present Day Status
Upon proposal of this Amendment by Congress on May 1, 1810, unlike most of the Amendments proposed by Congress in the twentieth century, Congress did not specify a time limit in which Final Ratification was to be accomplished. As such, this proposed Amendment continues to be subject to ratification by three-quarters of the States. In order for this to happen, twenty-six additional State ratifications are now necessary.
Following the Final Ratification of Article of Amendment XXVII in 1992, a 200-plus year old proposed Amendment, interest was renewed in the other four un-ratified Amendments, with significant attention on this “Titles of Nobility” amendment. There is a minority argument that ratification of this proposed Amendment is still necessary, and a fringe group has set forth some rather interesting, although complete fallacious and misleading, views that this Amendment, referred to by the acronym “TONA” (Titles of Nobility Amendment) has already been ratified.
Among their arguments, bordering on the absurd, they rationalize that final ratification has been effectuated because of the fact that it was shown, although erroneously, as ratified in many nineteenth century publications. Further argued was that the State of Virginia had effectively ratified this proposed Amendment in 1819 when it enacted the publication of the Laws of Virginia in which the “Titles of Nobility” Amendment was erroneous included as ratified. They argued that because this publication included the proposed Amendment as ratified, and because this publication of the Laws of Virginia had been officially adopted, then Virginia had ratified this Amendment (although unknowingly). They conveniently overlook the fact that in 1819 there were twenty-one States, and Virginia’s pretended ratification would only be thirteen, three shy of the three-fourths requirement of sixteen States that would have then been necessary.
Notwithstanding the minority view in favor of ratification, the majority view is that restrictions relative to “Titles of Nobility” and other honorariums have been adequately addressed in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, and that this proposed Amendment, which is punitive, is unnecessary, especially in this day and age. If ratified, this proposed Amendment could strip citizenship from any United States citizens who received and accepted any “title of nobility or honor” from any foreign country. Further, unless otherwise permitted by Congress, United States citizenship could also to be stripped from those citizens who received, accepted and retained “any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind” from a foreign country.
If ratified, this proposed Amendment would otherwise prohibit accepted historical practices that are not otherwise repugnant to the Constitution. United States citizens may accept titles of nobility, or other honorariums from a foreign country, except as may be restricted by Clause 8 of Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution. Numerous U.S. citizens, including heads of state, have accepted honorariums, primarily since World War II, including, in recent years, former U.S. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, Generals Colin Powell and Wesley K. Clark, Bill Gates and Jerry Lewis. Ratification would likely prohibit this practice and would also create a somewhat chaotic situation with respect to the status of the individuals who had previously accepted “Titles of Nobility” or other honors from foreign nations.