Titles of Nobility, Hereditary Privilege, and the Unconstitutionality of Legacy Preferences in Public School Admissions


This Article argues that legacy preferences in public university admissions violate the Constitution's prohibition on titles of nobility. Examining considerable evidence from the late eighteenth century, the Article argues that the Nobility Clauses were not limited to the prohibition of certain distinctive titles, such as “duke” or “earl,” but had a substantive content that included a prohibition on all hereditary privileges with respect to state institutions. The Article places special emphasis on the dispute surrounding the formation of the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary organization formed by officers of the Continental Army. This Society was repeatedly denounced by prominent Americans as a violation of the Articles of Confederation's prohibition on titles of nobility. This interpretation of the Nobility Clauses as a prohibition on hereditary privilege was echoed during the ratification of the Constitution and the post-ratification period. This Article also sets forth a framework for building a modern jurisprudence under the Nobility Clauses and concludes that legacy preferences are blatantly inconsistent with the Constitution's prohibition on hereditary privilege. Indeed, the closest analogues to such preferences in American law are the notorious “grandfather clauses” of the Jim Crow South, under which access to the ballot was predicated upon the status of one's ancestors. The Article considers a variety of counterarguments supporting the practice of legacy preferences and concludes that none of them are sufficient to surmount the Nobility Clauses' prohibition of hereditary privilege.


State universities & colleges -- Admission, Titles of honor & nobility, Equal rights, Equal protection



Carlton F. W. Larson (University of California, Davis)



Publication details



All rights reserved

Peer Review

This article has not been peer reviewed.

File Checksums (MD5)

  • pdf: 4666e9e0e6589ddc148950460d6b41d8