Being a citizen grants clear rights and privileges in the U.S. While citizenship can be granted by birthplace (14th Amendment), it is also granted to the child of a citizen with very lax conditions. Excluding the question of geographic location, the hereditary nature of citizenship seems to be in glaring contrast to other U.S. founding ideals. In Ancient Rome, for instance, being a citizen was more akin to being a nobleman. Similar to our current system, Romans could earn citizenship through service - usually militarily. Given that citizenship carries so much weight and is clearly hereditary in the U.S., why is it not considered as a title of nobility? While it does not indicate a British rank, it certainly indicates social rank. If all men are created equal, then why should this distinction exist?

  • Thank you, but I have already read this passage and don’t see its relevance. As the passage cites, it remains an open question academically.
    – junebug
    Nov 13, 2022 at 2:05
  • Isn't it just semantics? What would have changed if citizenship was a title of nobility?
    – Greendrake
    Nov 13, 2022 at 4:39
  • 1
    @Greendrake the US constitution prohibits the US from conferring titles of nobility.
    – phoog
    Nov 14, 2022 at 2:27
  • @phoog Sure. My question was a hypothetical in the case the prohibition didn't exist.
    – Greendrake
    Nov 14, 2022 at 2:52

4 Answers 4


Your question is a philosophical question, not a legal question.

"If all men are created equal, then why should this distinction exist?"

If you are asking why this distinction should [ethically] exist, that is a fascinating philosophical question. Many people do believe that the right of migration is a fundamental human right. And many people do believe that voting is not only a civic / civil right, but a human right. But these are not legal questions.

If you are instead asking why this distinction should [legally] exist, the premise of your question is wrong. The Declaration of Independence in general, and "all men are created equal" in particular were not written as legally binding documents at the founding of the US. The Preamble of the Constitution begins with these words:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution...

Thus, the Constitution was written to define the civil/civic rights of a particular people (i.e. the People of the United States) and their posterity. By forbidding titles of nobility, the authors of the Constitution sought to prevent the People being separated into ranks. They did not intend to group the People (and their posterity!) into the same rank as all other humans on earth.

Is this ethically justified? Great (non-legal) question. Is this legally justified? By definition, yes, since the Constitution is the highest law in the US.

  • 1
    Of course, while English and Roman law may have indicated otherwise, in this regard, it makes sense that US law would seek to distinguish itself. Thanks for being thorough in your response.
    – junebug
    Jan 9, 2023 at 1:17

The granting of citizenship is expressly recognized in multiple places in the US Constitution. It would be incoherent if the prohibition on titles of nobility meant that the US could not confer citizenship on people. It would also be totally out of sync with any public understanding of "titles of nobility" at the time of the framing or today.

The US has conferred citizenship by parentage to children born abroad since 1790, which is further indication that the nobility clause was not understood to preclude citizenship by parentage.

The concern behind the nobility clauses was the creation of "super-citizens." As Joseph Story wrote in his Commentaries on the Constitution at Vol. 3, p. 215:

[the nobility clause] seems scarcely to require even a passing notice. As a perfect equality is the basis of all our institutions, state and national, the prohibition against the creation of any titles of nobility seems proper, if not indespensible, to keep perpetually alive a just sense of this important truth. Distinctions between citizens, in regard to rank, would soon lay the foundation of odious claims and privileges, and silently subvert the spirit of independence and personal dignity, which are so often proclaimed to be the best security of a republican government.

He cited Federalist No. 84, in which Alexander Hamilton wrote:

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.

The worry was that titles of nobility would undermine the republican system of government.

I also question your premise that citizenship is "clearly hereditary in the U.S." As you say, the 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to those merely born in the US and subject to its jurisdiction. For the vast majority of U.S. citizens, citizenship is based on their place of birth being in the U.S. Knowing that somebody is a citizen tells you nothing about their heritage.

  • 1
    I’m not questioning the status of citizenship in general. I’m only questioning its hereditary nature. I guess my question should clarify that.
    – junebug
    Nov 13, 2022 at 1:47
  • @junebug citizenship isn't entirely hereditary. US citizenship is only acquired by a child born outside the US under certain circumstances. One reason for granting US citizenship to foreign-born children of US citizens is that many of them would otherwise be stateless; another is so the parents can return to the US without having to get visas for their children.
    – phoog
    Nov 14, 2022 at 2:16

why is it not considered a title of nobility?

It is not considered a title of nobility because it isn't. First, nobility is a state of being above everyone else. Citizenship does not have such a dimension; it's more about being in the group or outside of the group than it is about being above the group. One of the rules for interpreting legal texts is that words not specifically defined in the text itself should be given their ordinary meaning. The ordinary meaning of "nobility" has never included "citizen."

If that argument is not sufficient, consider that the constitution prohibits the granting of titles of nobility, which means that an interpretation that includes "Citizen" as a title of nobility would render the constitution logically inconsistent. It would also be unworkable in practical terms, because nobody would be qualified to serve in congress nor to become president, as these offices are open only to citizens of the United States.

Another rule of legal interpretation is that absurd interpretations are to be avoided. A constitution that requires citizenship to serve in the government while at the same time forbidding the granting of citizenship is an absurdity, and the simplest way to avoid this absurd result is to recognize that "citizen" is not a title of nobility.

  • "It is not considered a title of nobility because it isn't." Thank you. Words have meanings.
    – Tiger Guy
    Nov 14, 2022 at 6:23
  • Nothing in my question suggested that the granting of citizenship was forbidden. Your jump to absurdity is itself absurd. Further, your comment on inconsistency highlights my point. Legal arguments commonly refer back to English precedent, which also goes back to Roman precedent. In Rome, citizens were essentially on par with what we now consider to be nobles.
    – junebug
    Jan 9, 2023 at 1:03

Two completely distinct questions here:

  • How should the language in the 14th Amendment be interpreted?
  • Should there be birthright citizenship in a modern nation?

As to the first bullet point, at the time of writing and since, both in general usage and in legal decisions, citizenship was not considered a title of 'nobility.'

To the second bullet point, that belongs more on Politics SE, but think of the chaos if babies born to citizens abroad were not citizens, and had to apply like any other immigrant. There might be women who go into labor and try to rush home. Parents with a newborn baby who cannot take their baby home because (s)he lacks a passport and visa.

Also keep in mind that many countries do not have ius soli, that is citizenship based on the birthplace, at least not for tourists. So some of those people might become stateless.

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