Guest Essayist: Horace Cooper, Director of the Institute for Liberty’s Center for Law and Regulation, and a legal commentator

Proposed Amendment: Titles of Nobility Amendment:

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

Introduced in 1810, the so-called Titles of Nobility Amendment (TONA) was sponsored primarily by Maryland Senator Philip Reed.  Historians argue that this amendment’s purpose was two-fold.  One to make it more difficult for foreign agents to buy or influence votes in state and federal elections, and secondly to prevent saboteurs and enemies of America from promising land, wealth, and titles to officers in the military or other prominent appointees in government as a way to undermine their loyalty to the United States.

Senator Reed, the primary sponsor, was quite a character.   A revolutionary war hero, purportedly during the battle of Stony Point, he cut off the head of an American deserter and had it displayed on a pike as a deterrent to other deserters.

As a Senator from Maryland, Senator Reed and his constituents were keenly aware of the younger brother of French Ruler Napoleon Bonaparte’s marriage to the daughter of wealthy Baltimore merchant William Patterson.  Jerome Bonaparte’s marriage to Elizabeth Patterson (the Paris Hilton of her day) not only scandalized Northeastern American society, suggestions that the marriage would result in a lifetime annuity and a title for Ms. Patterson and her heirs was sufficient to remind American leaders of the need to minimize the ability of foreigners to influence American society and its political structure.

Primarily supported by Federalists, the amendment’s substance galvanized the Congress getting broad support.  The resolution passed both houses of Congress in 1810: the United States Senate by a vote of 19 to 5 and by the House of Representatives by a vote of 87 to 3.  It was sent to the states and awaits action for ratification.   According to the Supreme Court, in a case entitled Coleman v. Miller, the amendment is still available to be considered and ratified by the various states, as there is no deadline for ratification specified when Congress initially proposed the amendment.  As least 26 more states would have to ratify the amendment in order for it to become part of the Constitution today.

This amendment was ratified by 12 state legislatures:

1.  Maryland (December 25, 1810)

2.  Kentucky (January 31, 1811)

3.  Ohio (January 31, 1811)

4.  Delaware (February 2, 1811)

5.  Pennsylvania (February 6, 1811)

6.  New Jersey (February 13, 1811)

7.  Vermont (October 24, 1811)

8.  Tennessee (November 21, 1811)

9.  North Carolina (December 23, 1811)

  1. Georgia (December 31, 1811)[1]
  2. Massachusetts (February 27, 1812)
  3. New Hampshire (December 9, 1812)

Senator Reed lived to be 69 years of age, dying in 1829.  A memorial marks his grave to this day as one of Kent Maryland’s most distinguished citizens.

Today the only controversy about this so-called “Titles of Nobility Act” is whether it was already ratified.  Historians overwhelmingly agree that the amendment was not ratified.  In 1833, the brilliant and highly regarded judge and commentator Joseph Story wrote “it has not received the ratification of the constitutional number of states to make it obligatory, probably from a growing sense, that it is wholly unnecessary” and the 1848 edition of Bouvier’s Law Dictionary recorded that TONA “has been recommended by Congress, but it has not been ratified by a sufficient number of states to make a part of the constitution.”

Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and the Director of the Center for Law and Regulation at the Institute for Liberty

June 15, 2012

Essay #85

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