Having read this question, it makes reference to treason, to which part of it states:

The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.

Unfortunately, the archaic language makes it difficult for me to understand. I presume attainder means detention, but I can't work out what "corruption of blood" or "forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted" means or why it's prohibited.


3 Answers 3


In English law during the late Medieval and early modern period (from 1321 to 1798), it was possible for Parliament to pass a "Bill Of Attainder". This declared a person guilty of a crime, often treason, by legislative act, without any trial or other legal process. See the Wikipedia article for more detail.

Often a Bill of Attainder not only decreed that a person (or people) was guilty, but also confiscated the convicted person's property, preventing his (or rarely her) heirs from inheriting, and possibly rendering those heirs ineligible to hold public offices or peerages. The heir would also be prevented from inheriting through the attainted person. For example, property held by the father of the attainted person would not pass to the child of the attainted person. This was called "corruption of the blood", and was viewed with particular horror by many during the colonial period and before. It effectivly treated the heirs of the attainted person as illegitimate.

Attainder was usually followed by execution, possibly by torture. The bill might specify the specific fate of the person attained.

The US constitutional provision prohibits declaring people guilty of crimes by legislative act, and prohibits sentences for crimes that take property or rights from the family or heirs of the convicted person, even in cases of treason. At least that is how it has been interpreted. Fines may be levied, but may only fall on the actual property of the person convicted.

The US Supreme Court has dealt with this clause in several cases:

  • Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. 333 (1866) (law requiring lawyers to swear that they had not supported the confederacy held unconstitutional);
  • Cummings v. Missouri, 71 U.S. 277 (1867) (Law requiring an oath that the person had not supported the confederacy for a professional license held unconstitutional);
  • Hawker v. New York, 170 U.S. 189 (1898) (a state law barring convicted felons from practicing medicine upheld);
  • Dent v. West Virginia, 129 U.S. 114 (1889), (a state law newly requiring that practising physicians must have graduated from a licensed medical school upheld);
  • United States v. Lovett, 328 U.S. 303 (1946) (federal law which declared three specific persons "subversive" and barred them from federal employment overturned);
  • American Communications Association v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382 (1950) (federal law which required elected labour leaders to take an oath that they were not and had never been members of the Communist Party USA, and that they did not advocate violent overthrow of the U.S. government upheld);
  • United States v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437 (1965) (law which made it a crime for a former communist to serve on a union's board overturned);
  • and Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425 (1977) (law seizing Nixon's presidential papers upheld).
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    Nice. It's probably a good idea to note that attainder is related to taint, so it could be said to denote the act of tainting someone.
    – phoog
    Oct 25, 2018 at 12:57

Attainder refers to a metaphorical "stain" (taint, related to 'tint'). In English law, a person could lose their right to pass property to their heirs (especially as punishment for treason). "Corruption of blood" refers to the fact that not only can the children not inherit from the "tainted" person, then cannot inherit from other relatives through the attainted person. That is, the sins of the father will not be legally visited on the children. A person can be punished during his lifetime, but punishment ceases with his death.


To understand the Constitution, use Samuel Johnson's dictionary. https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.org/views/search.php?term=attainder

Johnson defines "to Ataint" as:

To attaint is particularly used for such as are found guilty of some crime or offence, and especially of felony or treason. A man is attainted two ways, by appearance, or by process. Attainder by appearance is by confession, battle, or verdict. Confession is double; one at the bar before the judges, when the prisoner, upon his indictment read, being asked guilty or not guilty, answers guilty, never putting himself upon the verdict of the jury. The other is before the coroner in sanctuary, where he, upon his confession, was in former times constrained to abjure the realm; which kind is called attainder by abjuration. Attainder by battle is, when the party appealed, and choosing to try the truth by combat rather than by jury, is vanquished. Attainder by verdict is, when the prisoner at the bar, answering to the indictment not guilty, hath an inquest of life and death passing upon him, and is by the verdict pronounced guilty. Attainder by process is, where a party flies, and is not found till five times called publickly in the county, and at last outlawed upon his default. Cowel.

Were it not an endless trouble, that no traitor or felon should be attainted, but a parliament must be called. Spenser on Ireland.

I must offend before I be attainted. Shakesp. Hen. VI.

  • 1
    Joihnson's Dictionary came out in 1755 about a generation before thge Constitution was written. It was quite influential, but had a good many flaws. It is not a bad tool to learn the ordinary meaning of English words in that period, but it did not claim to be a legal dictionary and did not give the dull meanings of technical legal terms. Also Answers here should not be just links but should include enough information to be useful even if the link fails. The first ed of Blacks law dictionary might be useful, although it is well after the date of the Constitution (1895). Bouvier's is 1839. Apr 24, 2021 at 15:02
  • I have added the relevant quote, so this is no longer a link-only answer. However, it seems to treat 'To ataint" as basically the same as "to convict". Apr 24, 2021 at 15:10

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