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.
Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8
8: 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.
Following Section 8, in which the powers of Congress are enumerated, Section 9 enumerates the restrictions that the Constitution places on Congress. The final clause of Section 9 states that Congress cannot grant titles of nobility nor anyone holding any state or federal office can accept a title from a foreign state unless first approved by Congress.
The first part of Clause 8 is perhaps the most cited and directly applicable to contemporary concerns. Think of all the czars who have been appointed recently by the President. It can be argued that being a czar is not noble, nor is the title one of British nobility, but that would construe the term and the intent far too narrowly. The Founders did not want an aristocratic ruling class who were insulated from the public. That seems to be the very definition of the recently appointed czars who usually have close personal ties with the appointing President or one of his officials. Furthermore, theses czars are insulated from the influence of the public and congressional oversight.
This is the obvious interpretation of the Clause. What usually goes unnoticed is the second part.
The first thing that strikes me when reading this Clause is the phrase “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them,” specifically the use of the term “them”. It is uncommon for most of us to use the pronoun “them” instead of “it” when referring to the United States. Reading this sentence in conjunction with the Preamble, we can better understand what the Founders meant when they wrote, “We the People, of the United States of America.” If their view held consistent between the Preamble and Article I, which it surely did, then We the People would seem to mean the people of the states rather than a single national people. This is more than just a pedantic discussion of constitutional interpretation however, but instead one more instance of how a close reading of the Constitution can provide solutions to contemporary political debates.
Here is how.
The national government overshadows our states which is partially due to, or has at least led to, our viewing the United States as a singular rather than a plural. In viewing the United States as a plural we can understand it as a compact between the states, and their citizens, rather than between the people of a national, single United States. This understanding is quite consistent with the view expressed by Madison and Jefferson in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions respectively. If we were to adopt this reading of the American Constitutional tradition, and its implications as articulated by Madison and Jefferson, we would have a more decentralized regime, and the national government would be more limited as a result. If national action required the consent of the states, and the people of the states as citizens of their respective states rather than national citizens, there would be a more significant check on the national government’s ability to push through controversial legislation or for the growing bureaucracy to implement plans inconsistent with the will of the people. If we had maintained this view of the Constitution, chances are the recent health care reform would have been blocked, or at least restricted to only those states that supported the reform. It would also be unlikely that federal agencies like the EPA would be able to force states to abide by their administrative rules without the consent of the states.
The common thread that runs through the first and second parts of Clause 8 is an aspiration towards limited government, which then makes this Clause thematically consistent with all of Section 9 as it is here that the limitations on Congress are enumerated.
It is no surprise to anyone that the Founders wanted limited government, but it is important to understand why and how they went about trying to achieve it. And while it is easy to cite specific sections and clauses to this effect, it is more important to explain what those citations mean. The Constitution demands a reading that searches for a political theory for it is only then that we can formulate a coherent argument about what the Founders would have to say about contemporary matters.
Kyle Scott is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Honors College at the University of Houston. His third book, Federalism, is due out March 17th. Dr. Scott has written on the Federalist Papers for Constituting America and proudly serves as a member of its Constitutional Advisory Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you can follow his blog at www.redroom.com/member/kylescott