Now here’s a bizarre story. In 1810, Congress proposed a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which stated that titles of nobility conferred upon Americans were invalid, and that anyone who got one would cease to be a citizen of the United States. The amendment was never passed, but its mistaken inclusion in an 1815 book about the Constitution has fueled controversy ever since–a very bizarre controversy.

I happened upon this story while reading a web page demolishing the ridiculous and nonsensical arguments of “tax protestors,” delusional folks who come up with false but often hilarious “legal” arguments as to why they don’t have to pay taxes. The page’s story on the “phantom 13th Amendment” is pretty interesting. Here it is:

In 1810 the Congress proposed a Thirteenth Amendment (the Twelfth having been adopted in 1804) to the effect that “If any citizen … shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honor … from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen … and shall be incapable of holding any office … or either of them”.  This proposal is appended to some editions of the Constitution as an unratified proposal.

This 1810 proposal was inspired by the instance of Elizabeth Patterson, a Baltimore socialite who, in 1803, apparently married the brother of the Emperor Napoleon and insisted on being identified as a duchess (the bona fides of her alleged marriage were eventually disputed by the Bonaparte family, which eventually obtained a divorce); the story is told in “The Phantom Amendment & the Duchess of Baltimore” by W.H. Earle, American History Illustrated, November 1987.  The proposed amendment had accumulated only 12 state ratifications,  the last in December 1812 by which time it would have required 14 to be adopted.

However, in 1815 there was published by Bioren & Duane of Philadelphia, under a government contract, a five volume set titled “Laws of the United States”, which printed the proposal as “Article 13” immediately following the authentic 11th and 12th Amendments on page 74 of the first volume; however more than 75 pages earlier, in the volume’s introduction, the editors had cautioned (on page ix), “There had been some difficulty in ascertaining whether the amendment proposed, which is stated as the thirteenth, has or has not been adopted by a sufficient number of the state legislatures….  It has been considered best, however, to publish the proposed amendment in its proper place, as if it had been adopted, with this explanation, to prevent misconception.”   It thereafter appears that several editors or publishers of other editions of the US Constitution relied on the Bioren & Duane edition when working up their own texts of the Constitution (sometimes mentioning the Bioren & Duane edition by name as their source) but missed this editorial caution and thereby were misled into including this 1810 proposal as if it had been adopted.

In 1813, the Secretary of State, James Monroe, sent a circular letter to all the governors inquiring about further ratifications of this proposed amendment, without result. However, in 1817, the House of Representatives arranged to have a pocket edition of the Constitution printed up for distribution and when these copies arrived containing the so-called Thirteenth Amendment, the House on the last day of 1817 formally asked the President for verification of whether this was validly part of the Constitution.  The President, James Monroe, presented the House with two reports of his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, which confirmed that there had been only twelve state ratifications, an insufficient number for adoption, and these were published as Messages from the President on February 6, and March 2, 1818.  The Congress was apparently satisfied with these reports and thereafter this 1810 proposal never again appears as part of the Constitution in any edition published by any part of the federal government.

What does this have to do with not paying your taxes? Absolutely nothing. However, “tax protestors”–people who really really really really really hate paying taxes–have claimed that this “Thirteenth Amendment” was in fact passed. (The real Thirteenth Amendment, the one that abolished slavery, was passed in April 1865). Under the fake “Thirteenth Amendment,” tax protestors claim that “Congressman,” “Senator,” “judge” or even “attorney” are “titles of nobility” that the Amendment prohibits, and anyone who has them is not a U.S. citizen, which means the tax laws were passed by non-citizens, which (supposedly) means nobody owes taxes.

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty silly, but it’s no sillier than other tax protest arguments like “Federal Reserve Notes are not money” or “taxes are voluntary and therefore no one owes them.” Needless to say, these arguments have never prevailed in court, not even once.

Anyway, from a historical standpoint, the story of the Thirteenth Amendment that never was and the “Duchess of Baltimore” was pretty interesting, and one I hadn’t heard of before. Fascinating stuff!