Most people do not realize that the well-known thirteenth amendment – that which ended slavery in America – was not the first “Thirteenth” amendment proposed.
As any Constitutional scholar (or anyone remotely familiar with American History) can readily tell you, the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution is an important one. Perhaps even the most important one of all. As most students learned at some point in school but quickly forgot, the thirteenth amendment that is so well known today was ratified by congress in 1865, and effectively abolished slavery in the United States.
While this amendment didn’t exactly end racism once and for all (it’s proven rather difficult to make laws to that effect), it certainly was quite an important step in that direction.
But the true history of the thirteenth amendment actually goes back much farther than The Civil War, and has very little to do with slavery.
Titles of Nobility
The story begins in 1810, fifty-five years before slavery would be abolished.
There was a young woman from Baltimore, Ms. Betsy Patterson. This young lady, in some kind of flight of youthful fancy, moved to England, where she married Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, Jerome, and with him had a child, young Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (the young couple were clearly not known for coming up with clever names).
Now, because of his mother’s heritage, this child by law was granted automatic citizenship into the United States, while at the same time retaining a status of nobility in France, being Napoleon’s nephew and all.
There were many among the nobles in America who viewed this as a travesty to their own national identity, and quite a good reason to add a little something to the Constitution that was apparently missing.
And thus was born the Titles of Nobility Act; a proposed constitutional amendment (it would be, of course, the 13th) stating that any citizen of the U.S. who receives a title of nobility or honor from a foreign nation without the consent of congress must be forced to give up his or her citizenship in the United States.
Apparently, the proposed amendment must have sounded quite good to congress at the time, as it passed quickly through both houses by quite a wide majority, then was sent down to the individual state legislatures to be voted on (as article 5 of the constitution requires). It is here that the amendment finally found trouble.
Such an amendment would have required approval of two thirds of the states for ratification. After three years of debate (as the War of 1812 continued to rage), the amendment finally fell just shy of the required state approval, and thus was not added to the constitution.
Or was it?
The Short, But Interesting, Legacy
For several decades, it was quite a common misconception among many Americans that the Titles of Nobility Act had, in fact, been approved. Much of this can probably be blamed, one must suppose, on the yet-primitive methods of communication available in the nineteenth century. In fact, communication over long distances hadn’t been much improved over the previous several centuries at this point, apart from the introduction of the steam engine, which hadn’t yet caught on at this point, having been invented only a few years previously.
Similarly, the telegraph wouldn’t come for a few more decades, then the phone a few decades after that. In fact, word that the Titles of Nobility Act had failed spread so poorly that the amendment was actually included in several printings of the constitution during this time before the folks at the printing presses themselves finally got a clue. Eventually, it seems that people began to realize the error of their ways, though it wouldn’t surprise me if more than a few people were a bit confused when congress took it upon themselves to issue another thirteenth amendment forty years later.
Of course, this is not the end of the story. Even today, there is absolutely no end of websites and message boards (including the “Titles of Nobility Act Research Comittee”) who declare the Titles of Nobility Act to have been passed in truth, but then swept under the rug by a vast government conspiracy. It’s an intersting thought, to be sure, but constitutional scholars tend to agree that the amendment did not, in fact, pass. If they somehow could have conspired to remove the act from the constitution, however, this surely deserves some sort of praise, as such a thing must not have been easy.
In closing, here are just a few of the many people who would lose their citizenship should such an amendment go into effect today: George H.W. Bush, Norman Schwarzkopf, Rudy Giuliani, and even Bill Gates; for all of these men have one important thing in common: they have been granted honorary knighthood from Britain.
- Silversmith, Jol A. “The ‘Missing’ Thirteenth Amendment’: Constitutional Nonsense and Titles of Nobility.”
- The TONA Research Comittee. http://www.amendment-13.org/