Apropos Of Nothing: Article I, Section 9, Clause 8

Article I, Section 9, Clause 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.

From The Constitution Annotated, Courtesy of

The Constitution’s prohibition on titles of nobility reflects both the American aversion to aristocracy1 and the republican character of the government established by the Constitution.2 The Clause thus complements other constitutional provisions—most notably the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—that prohibit invidious governmental distinctions between classes of American citizens.3



The Articles of Confederation4 and many Revolutionary-era state constitutions contained prohibitions of titles of nobility and other systems of hereditary privilege.5 The federal Title of Nobility Clause substantially follows the Articles’ prohibition and was not a subject of significant debate at the Constitutional Convention.6 As James Madison observed in the Federalist No. 44The prohibition with respect to titles of nobility is copied from the articles of Confederation and needs no comment.7 Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist No. 84, was only slightly more loquacious:

Nothing need be said to illustrate the importance of the prohibition of titles of nobility. This may truly be denominated the corner-stone of republican government; for so long as they are excluded, there can never be serious danger that the government will be any other than that of the people.8

Very few courts have had occasion to interpret the meaning of the federal Title of Nobility Clause.9 The Supreme Court has only discussed the Title of Nobility Clause in passing, as when Justices cite the Clause to make a rhetorical point in a concurring or dissenting opinion.10

How broadly to understand the Title of Nobility Clause’s prohibition thus remains an open, if perhaps academic, question. On a narrow reading, the Clause merely prohibits a federal system of hereditary privilege along the lines of the British aristocratic system.11 More broadly understood, the Clause could preclude other governmental grants of enduring favor or disfavor to particular classes based on birth or other non-merit-based criteria.12 Some commentators have suggested, for example, that the Title of Nobility Clause might forbid admission preferences for legacy students at state universities or certain benefits that accompany receipt of the Medal of Honor.13 After the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, challenges to governmental favoritism based on class, race, or other bases have usually relied on the Equal Protection Clause.14

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