Word of an honorary knighthood for Senator Edward M. Kennedy set off a torrent of comments from readers, some of them questioning the constitutionality of such an accolade for a member of Congress.
I followed up with the senator’s office, the British government and independent sources. The bottom line is that Kennedy appears to be taking the necessary steps to get the required congressional approval for the foreign decoration.
Here’s what the Constitution says:
"Article 1, Section 9: 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.”
With the first sentence, the Framers expressed their objection to Americans developing their own nobility ranks within the United States, as some colonies had toyed with. With the second sentence, they barred any officials from taking gifts or titles from foreign governments.
As Thomas James Norton put it in a book on the sources of the Constitution in 1922, “Of course, a republic born of misrule of a monarchy should not grant titles of nobility.” Norton said a gift from the king of France during the revolution to the US ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, prompted the provision against gifts or emoluments.
Antipathy to foreign influence-peddling runs deep. In 1810, Congress proposed a constitutional amendment barring any citizen, not just office holders, from accepting “any title of nobility or honor,” or any gift from any foreign power – at penalty of loss of citizenship. Despite some historical controversy, the amendment fell one state short of ratification.
In any case, there’s also a federal law that governs the handling of foreign gifts or decorations, whether of value or not, to employees of the US government. That includes members of Congress, and it’s the relevant law in the senator's case. The US Code, Title V, Section 7342, spells it out:
“(d) The Congress consents to the accepting, retaining, and wearing by an employee of a decoration tendered in recognition of active field service in time of combat operations or awarded for other outstanding or unusually meritorious performance, subject to the approval of the employing agency of such employee.”
The employing agency is the US Senate, and the body that approves gifts or decorations is the Senate Ethics Committee. It operates with strict rules of confidentiality, and committee officials don’t comment on individual cases.
Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Kennedy, said the senator has indeed taken the necessary steps with the Ethics Committee to receive approval for the honorary knighthood.
Here’s Coley's emailed response to my query: “We raised this with the Ethics Committee beforehand and are working with them to meet any and all legal requirements.”
And so, while Kennedy won’t be called Sir Ted because only British subjects may use that title, it appears he’ll have no obstacle to using the initials KBE after his name, signifying Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
UPDATE: Joseph Pickerell, vice consul for political, press and public affairs at the British Consulate General in Boston, said the British government had checked with ethical and legal advisers in the United States before going forward with the announcement to make sure there were no obstacles. He said the key is the honorary nature of the knighthood, comparing it to an honorary university degree for a lifetime of service. Pickerell said the senator would not have to swear fealty and bow before Queen Elizabeth II, as a knighted British subject would have to do.
Pickerell added that the accolade would probably be bestowed in Washington at a low-key event, and not in a formal ceremony at Buckingham Palace, as is customary. "It shouldn’t break any rules on this side because it is just a gesture," Pickerell said.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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