Title of Nobility Clause

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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. The Title of Nobility Clause is a provision in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution,[1][2] that not only forbids the United States from granting titles of nobility, but restricts members of the government from receiving gifts from foreign states without the consent of the United States Congress. This clause is also sometimes called the "federal" Nobility Clause,[3] because a similar clause in Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 bars the states (rather than the federal government) from granting titles of nobility. The Title of Nobility Clause is also one of the clauses that is sometimes called the "Emolument Clause".[4]


Article I, Section 9, Clause 8:

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No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.


The Framers' intentions for this clause were twofold: to prevent a society of nobility from being established in the United States, and to protect the republican forms of government from being influenced by other governments. In Federalist No. 22, Alexander Hamilton stated, "One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption." Therefore, to counter this "foreign corruption" the delegates at the Constitutional Convention worded the clause in such a way as to act as a catch-all for any attempts by foreign governments to influence state or municipal policies through gifts or titles.[5]

The Title of Nobility Clause is constitutionally unique in other respects. First, it is a "negative" clause — a restriction prohibiting the passage of legislation for a particular purpose. Such restrictions are unusual in that the Constitution has been historically interpreted to reflect specific (i.e., "positive") sources of power, relinquished by the States in their otherwise sovereign capacities.[6] Moreover, it is a negative clause without a positive converse. A common example of this is how the Commerce Clause represents the positive converse to the restrictions imposed by the Dormant (or "Negative") Commerce Clause. However, neither an express nor implied positive grant of authority exists as a balance against the restrictions imposed by the Title of Nobility Clause. For this reason, the clause was cited by Anti-Federalists who supported the adoption of a Bill of Rights. Richard Henry Lee warned that such distinctions were inherently dangerous under accepted principles of statutory construction, which would inevitably "give many general undefined powers to congress"[7] if left unchecked.

Why then by a negative clause, restrain congress from doing what it would have no power to do? This clause, then, must have no meaning, or imply, that were it omitted, congress would have the power in question, either upon the principle that some general words in the constitution may be so construed as to give it, or on the principle that congress possesses the powers not expressly reserved. But this clause was in the confederation, and is said to be introduced into the constitution from very great caution. Even a cautionary provision implies a doubt, at least, that it is necessary; and if so in this case, clearly it is also alike necessary in all similar ones.[8]

According to Lee, the true purpose of the clause was merely to protect popular tradition: "The fact appears to be, that the people in forming the confederation, and the convention . . . acted naturally; they did not leave the point to be settled by general principles and logical inferences; but they settle the point in a few words, and all who read them at once understand them.[9] It was argued, therefore, that a Bill of Rights was needed to safeguard against the expansion of federal power beyond such limited purpose(s).

Titles of nobility

The issue of titles was of serious importance to the American Revolutionaries and the Framers of the Constitution. Some felt that titles of nobility had no place in an equal and just society because they clouded people's judgment. Thomas Paine, in a scathing attack on nobility in general, wrote:

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Dignities and high sounding names have different effects on different beholders. The lustre of the Star and the title of My Lord, over-awe the superstitious vulgar, and forbid them to inquire into the character of the possessor: Nay more, they are, as it were, bewitched to admire in the great, the vices they would honestly condemn in themselves. This sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom; for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.[10]

He felt that titles blinded people from seeing the true character of a person by providing titled individuals a lustre. Many Americans connected titles with the corruption that they had experienced from Great Britain, while others, like Benjamin Franklin, didn't have as negative a view of titles. He felt that if a title is ascending, that is, it is achieved through hard work during a person's lifetime, it is good because it encourages the title holder's posterity to aspire to achieve the same or greater title; however, Franklin commented, that if a title is descending, that is, it is passed down from the title holder to his posterity, then it is:

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groundless and absurd, but often hurtful to that Posterity, since it is apt to make them proud, disdaining to be employ'd in useful Arts, and thence falling into Poverty, and all the Meannesses, Servility, and Wretchedness attending it; which is the present case with much of what is called the Noblesse in Europe.[11]

President's title

One of the first issues that the United States Senate dealt with was the title of president. Vice President John Adams called the senators' attention to this pressing procedural matter. Most senators were averse to calling the president anything that resembled the titles of European monarchs, yet John Adams proceeded to recommend the title: "His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of their Liberties," an attempt to imitate the titles of the British monarch: "By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, Prince-Elector of Hannover, Duke of Brunswick" and the French monarch: "By the Grace of God, Most Christian King of France and Navarre." Some senators favored "His Elective Majesty" or "His Excellency" (the latter of which would become the standard form of address for elected presidents of later republics). James Madison, a member of the House of Representatives, would have none of it. He declared that the pretentious European titles were ill suited for the "genius of the people" and "the nature of our Government." Washington became completely embarrassed with the topic and so the senators dropped it. From then on the president would simply be called the President of the United States or Mr. President, drawing a sharp distinction between American and European customs.[12]

Constitutional amendment concerning titles of nobility

In 1810, Democratic–Republican Senator Philip Reed of Maryland,[13] introduced a Constitutional amendment modifying the Title of Nobility Clause. Under the terms of this amendment any United States citizen who accepted, claimed, received or retained any title of nobility from a foreign government would be stripped of their U. S. citizenship. After being approved by the Senate on April 27, 1810, by a vote of 19–5[14] and the House of Representatives on May 1, 1810, by a vote of 87–3,[15] the amendment, titled "Article Thirteen", was sent to the state legislatures for ratification. On two occasions between 1812 and 1816 it was within two states of the number needed to become a valid part of the Constitution.[16] As Congress did not set a time limit for its ratification, the amendment is still technically pending before the states. Currently, ratification by an additional 26 states would be necessary for this amendment to be adopted.

Congressional authorization

In 1942 Congress authorized members of the armed forces to accept any "decorations, orders, medals and emblems" offered by allied nations during the course of World War II or up to one year following its conclusion.[17] Notably, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted a number of titles and awards pursuant to this authorization after the fall of Nazi Germany, including a knighthood in Denmark's highest order of chivalry, the Order of the Elephant.[18]

Congress has also consented in advance to the receipt from foreign governments, by officials of the United States government (including military personnel) of a variety of gifts, subject to a variety of conditions, in the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, 5 U.S.C. 7342 [19] and section 108A of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, otherwise known as the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 [20] (22 U.S.C. 2458a).


  1. Shenon, Philip and Greenhouse, Linda. “Washington Talk: Briefing; The King and the Joker”, New York Times (1988-08-17): "This is the title of nobility clause, which provides: 'No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States'."
  2. Wood, Diane. "Our 18th Century Constitution in the 21st Century World". 80 New York University Law Review 1079, 1105 (2005): "Debate [over the Constitution's] meaning is inevitable whenever something as specific as the ... Titles of Nobility Clause is not at issue."
  3. Larson, Carlton. “Titles of Nobility, Hereditary Privilege, and the Unconstitutionality of Legacy Preferences in Public School Admissions”, Washington University Law Review, Volume 84, page 1375 (2006).
  4. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Findlaw.com. Retrieved 2007-01-26
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  6. See generally U.S. Const. amend. X; see also The Federalist No. 41 (James Madison); and Letters From The Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), Letter III (October 10, 1787) ed. Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1999) (Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/690/102315 on 2009-05-22)
  7. Letters From The Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), Letter XVI (January 20, 1788) ed. Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1999). Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/690/102320 on 2009-05-22
  8. Id. (emphasis added).
  9. Id.
  10. The Life and Works of Thomas Paine. Edited by William M. Van der Weyde. Patriots' Edition. 10 vols. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 1925.
  11. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Albert Henry Smyth. 10 vols. New York: Macmillan Co., 1905--7.
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  14. 20 Annals of Congress pages 670–672
  15. 20 Annals of Congress pages 2050–2051
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  17. Public Law 77-671
  18. American Heraldry's entry on Eisenhower's coat of arms
  19. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/5/usc_sec_05_00007342----000-.html
  20. http://uscode.house.gov/download/pls/22C33.txt