NOBILITY, THE NEW WORLD AND THE ORDER OF MALTA
© Guy Stair Sainty
Today the U.S. Associations together represent twenty-five per cent of the membership, without including the Canadian, Antipodean and South and Central American Associations. The application of the "European" standard of noble proofs to New World citizens has been criticized both in the New World and by those outside who are familiar with these societies. There never has been any correlation between the right to bear an ancient coat of arms and social or economic standing in the New World (just as if there was once such a relationship in Great Britain, it exists no longer). North American armigers may be divided into three categories: firstly the descendants (generally protestant) of the handful of cadet members of English or Scottish landed families who settled in North America between 1630 and 1850, but whose social position in the new world was generally unrelated to the status of their families in their place of origin; secondly the descendants of members of the European nobility who settled in the United States after the end of the first World War, but whose rank as nobles is irrelevant to their social status and who are only rarely represented among the economic, political or social leadership of the United States; and thirdly the descendants of those wealthy American families who may have obtained a British grant within the last century - while these families may still enjoy wealth and prominence, the conferment of arms on Americans was unusual and was not a recognition of their American achievements or social position. Thus, since most American Catholics are not of English or Scottish origin, with very few exceptions potential applicants who can provide proof of descent from a genuine European noble or armigerous family are of fairly recent immigrant stock. In South America those of noble descent are predominately descended from Spaniards who settled there before the end of the eighteenth century, or whose families were ennobled by the Viceroys before independence. The social progress of families which have achieved prominence in the nearly two hundred years since then has not been recognized by the conferral of nobility and whatever their standing, or the contribution of their families, few are eligible for the noble ranks.
In the United States it is possible to identify at least one group which represents the military leaders of two centuries earlier, namely the Society of the Cincinnati. This was formed by the officers of the revolutionary army under the immediate command of General George Washington to commemorate their common struggle to "cause the separation of the Colonies of North America from the domination of Great Britain and, after a bloody conflict of eight years, to establish them free and independent sovereign states" on 13 May 1783.  Membership was open to all officers of the American "Continental" Army (including those who had resigned with honor after three years service), provided they subscribe one month's pay, and "as a testimony to the memory and the offspring of such officers as have died in the service, their eldest male branches shall have the same right of becoming members, as the children of actual members of the Society". By article 27 of the statutes, membership was also extended to those French officers above a certain rank (recently adjusted to include all French officers who served in the war) and a single representative among their descendants; despite the admission of French members falling into abeyance between the revolution and the 1920's, today the two hundred and fifty French members represent slightly more than twelve per cent of the total membership (and include several knights of Honor and Devotion in the French Association of the SMHOM). The rules have now been altered so that on the extinction of the direct descendants in the male line, and of the descendants of any collateral branch, the right to membership as the representative of an officer may (with the permission of the Society) pass through the female line.  The Society is headed by a President-General, who serves along with a Vice-President-General, Secretary and Treasurer, and there are Societies in the original thirteen States as well as France (and Associations in Texas and California for existing members resident in those States), each with their own President, some with slight variations of the admission rules to take account of the particular history of that State.  The only other Society to have been formed contemporaneously with the events it was designed to commemorate and whose badges can be worn on military uniform is the Aztec Club of 1847, the Military Society of the Mexican War.  Membership of the Cincinnati through male line descent may well be taken as evidence of a right to Grace and Devotion in any reformed system.
If the purpose of the application of nobiliary regulations in the SMHOM is to continue to distinguish those families which have played a leadership role in society for generations and encourage their younger members to join the Order, then the current system has not been wholly successful in the New World. For the Order to continue to attract representatives of those families which have provided Europe and the New World with their political, military, diplomatic and financial leadership, a system of selection needs to be devised to reflect the changes in society over the past two centuries.
The adoption of a new standard in the United States would be a great improvement and, although requiring some subjectivity of judgment, would probably be easier to evaluate and administer than the present system, which involves candidates for promotion to Grace or Honor and Devotion in elaborate research in often inadequate European archives and the application of a necessarily flexible standard of proof. Until the present rules are reformed the descendants of those families (whether originally or by conversion Catholic), which have played a prominent role in American society for generations and who, had they been of comparable prominence in Great Britain, would probably have been ennobled or petitioned for a grant of arms, will continue to be excluded from the noble grades and therefore from making the promise of Obedience. Unless they make full profession as knights of Justice, they will likewise be excluded from the highest offices in the Order. This contributes to a resentment against the authority exercised over their Associations by the senior members of European Associations with little prospect of a citizen of the New World, however distinguished his family, of sharing that authority.
Postulants (candidates) for the honor of Knight or Dame of Malta are usually chosen from those who have either inherited or earned a prominent place in society. Because the Order needs to maintain its membership and its humanitarian mission, it needs young members as well as those with greater experience of the world who are distinguished by what they have achieved in their own lifetimes. These younger candidates, not old enough to have shown the "merit towards the Church, the Order and their neighbor" required of those admitted in Magistral Grace, can generally only enter in the noble ranks. The average age of members of the three US Associations is substantially older than that of most of the large European Associations because there are relatively few candidates who can show such merits before reaching their forties. The practice of offering membership to older lay men and women who have distinguished themselves in their service to the Church or society has led to the misconception - which all three US Associations have done much to dissipate in recent years - that the Order is a reward for past services. Some Catholic Bishops have proposed deserving Catholics for membership in Malta or the Holy Sepulcher to acknowledge specially distinguished service to the Church, rather than rewarding such services by recommending individuals for membership in the Papal Orders.  While some children of active US members have been received at a relatively young age - particularly in the Western Association which also has the highest proportion of members in the noble ranks - they represent only a tiny proportion of the total.
The modest number of North American members admitted or transferred after admission to the first (Honor and Devotion) or third (Grace and Devotion) ranks of the third class is not only due to the relatively limited number of potential candidates able to provide the necessary nobiliary proof. Opposition from some US knights and dames who are opposed to the concept of noble ranks has also inhibited eligible candidates from applying. There is a misconception that requiring proof of being descended from a noble family or giving preference to those so descended is somehow contrary to the US Constitution. That all the members are part of an Order in which nobility has been, and still is, a requirement since soon after its foundation is viewed by some as irrelevant in the United States, a supposedly egalitarian society. Yet, while the United States recognizes that "all men are created equal" it does not give equal rights to all to become US citizens. Neither does it confer equal rights on all its citizens, since the two greatest offices of State, of President and Vice-President, are denied to those who have acquired citizenship other than by birth.
The concept of officially acknowledging the inheritance of particular advantages is not unknown in the United States. The notable privilege of automatic admission to the national military service academy of their choice is conferred by law on the children of recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Furthermore, by a joint resolution of Congress  the members of the Society of the Cincinnati,  the Society of the War of 1812, the Aztec Society (Mexican War of 1846) and the Loyal Legion can wear the ribbon designating such membership on military uniform, although the service was actually provided by an ancestor.  Thus, recognition of ancestral achievements and loyal service in the person of the descendants of those who provided such service is accepted. Even if the United States Congress was to enact a law requiring all public and private organizations not to discriminate in favor of those of noble descent, the Order of Malta would be exempted from compliance by virtue of the privileged constitutional treatment given to religious organizations (which, for example, exempts the Catholic Church from "equal opportunity" laws that might otherwise require the admission of women to the priesthood).
There is no conflict between equality before the law as citizens, and recognition that in the United States - as in every Western society - there are families which generation after generation have played a leadership role. Family traditions of service are not contrary to the American ethos, indeed they are generally admired. Those who are inspired to serve their country, the Church or their community in emulation of traditions established by their antecedents are surely worthy of commendation. Membership in the Order of Malta is a particular honor to which those who descend from such families enjoy privileged access. In return they accept the responsibility of service that accompanies such a privilege.
The status of nobility was conferred on those who, if not already of noble extraction from time immemorial, had risen to prominence in the service of their country or sovereign. Such distinguished service was recognized by the Crown or State and the historic achievements of their families may have been marked by the adornment to the name of a title, the particule  or coat of arms, which continue to serve as reminders to future generations of the privileges they enjoy and the obligations they impose. Those who have joined the Order's pilgrimage to Lourdes and observed the enthusiastic participation of the many young volunteers who accompany malades from across Europe can surely not ignore the fact that a large proportion are representatives of noble families which, in many cases, have provided generations of service in the ranks of the Order or to their country. Since their name confers the particular advantage of applying for membership in the noble ranks of the Order of Malta, an interest in serving is insured on the part of those who enjoy such specially privileged positions.
It should not be forgotten that distinguished Catholic Americans, several of whom were members of the SMOM, received titles of nobility from the Holy See as recently as the 1950's. Among the better known examples are the late Rose FitzGerald Kennedy, a Papal Countess and mother of President John F. Kennedy, and Bernardine Donohue, a Papal Countess created by Pius XII, whose husband Daniel J. Donohue is a Gentleman of His Holiness and member of the American Association of the SMHOM. In the 1920's one of the founders of the American Association, Nicholas Brady, received the title of Papal Duke while another, George Macdonald, sometime President of the Association, was created a Papal Marquess. A councilor of the same Association, Edward L. Hearn, was created a Papal Count by Pius XII. The Allied governor of Italy after the surrender in 1943, General Edgar Erskine Hume,  was a Virginia gentleman of ancient family who was made a Bailiff Grand Cross of Honor and Devotion on the basis of his proven noble descent and created Count of Chérisy by King Umberto II of Italy. These ladies and gentleman were all loyal Americans and good Catholics who considered their titles great honors of which they were rightly proud.
The present Grand Master has been particularly encouraging of those American knights who have submitted proofs for the noble categories by establishing descent from a European noble family  according to the relatively liberal British standard. There are now several members in the ranks of Honor and Devotion and Grace and Devotion in the Western Association, two in the Federal and one in the largest of the three, the American. Furthermore, a number of other members of the three US Associations could prove "noble" descent  in addition to those who have already satisfied the requirements. The stronger the representation of Americans in the "noble" ranks of the third class, the more influence the American Associations will have in the higher echelons of the Order which remain closed to non-nobles. Support for the maintenance of the nobiliary system is unanimous among the members of the Sovereign Council as well as the leadership of the European Associations. The Order is unlikely to abandon its nobiliary requirements as this special characteristic contributes much to the Order's influence and prestige in the modern, secular world.
The limitation of the noble ranks to those who could prove descent from a European noble family has meant that candidates from privileged North American Catholic families, which have give distinguished service to their country for generations, have often been unable to satisfy the standards demanded for entry, other than as knights or dames of Magistral Grace. Unlike comparable families in Great Britain, their social prominence was seldom recognized by ennoblement or a grant of arms in the colonial era and almost never after independence. Over the nearly four hundred years of the pre- and post-colonial history of the United States and Canada an identifiable privileged class has come into existence. The Order has not yet found a way to recognize this, however, by according it membership in the noble grades.
A reform of the rank of Grace and Devotion, permitting an alternative to the requirement for proof of descent from a European noble family, could enable the North American Associations to recognize and distinguish those families which have provided several generations of leadership in their country or the Catholic Community, or several generations of membership in the SMHOM. For five years from 1969 until 1974, special rules were approved for proofs of nobility in Canada on an experimental basis; a revision of such rules in response to criticisms of some aspects and a separate revision recognizing the particular circumstances of American Society could be drawn up for the future. Under the Canadian reforms admission in Grace and Devotion could be obtained in one of four ways.
(1) Proof of noble descent in the direct male line for a period of one hundred years (the usual "British" proof) or not less than three generations, including the applicant's own generation - this latter reform was criticized because it was possible for someone to obtain a new grant and his grandson or granddaughter immediately become eligible
(2) When an applicant's grandfather and father have been received into the SMHOM as knights of Magistral Grace, he or she could be received in Grace and Devotion without submitting further proofs of nobility  - this reform was criticized for the same reasons as the first, it being suggested that the reform should permit only the fourth generation to enter as Grace and Devotion.
(3) Nobility of office, by which the candidate, his or her father and grandfather must have held one of a variety of qualifying offices - some critics felt these qualifications were too broadly drawn, including not only judges, senators, members of parliament, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, provincial premiers, full university professors and deputy ministers in a federal or provincial government, but also those holding the military ranks of naval commander, army lieutenant-colonel, air-force wing commander and university doctorates.
(4) Personal Nobility, permitting the concession of Grace and Devotion to certain high officers, namely Governor-General, Chief Justice of Canada, Lieutenant-Governors of Provinces, Members of the Queen's Imperial Privy Council, Judges of the Supreme Courts, and Chancellors and Presidents of recognized universities, provided they could prove "honorable descent" for two or more generations. The reformed rules required that candidates seeking admission in Grace and Devotion under 3 and 4 should first have entered as knights or dames of Magistral Grace and could only transfer after a minimum of two years at the request of the Association.
A similar reform which placed greater emphasis on service to the Church, State or Society within each generation of the applicants family (but, not necessarily, his or her direct antecedents) and extended the qualifications for (1) and (2) by one generation could possibly satisfy those critics who fear reform would dilute the Order's nobiliary heritage. This would make it easier to bring in younger members and establish similar traditions of successive members from the same families which have served the Order so well in Europe. Despite the size of the three US Associations, the Order has been unable to establish an hospitaller and humanitarian role in the United States comparable to its achievements in Italy, Germany and France. This is virtually impossible without a large reservoir of younger volunteers. Without a reform which insures the opening up of membership to the younger scions of distinguished families, much of the humanitarian work of the Order in North America is likely to continue to be limited to financial contributions to worthy causes. If the noble ranks were enlarged the North American Associations would more closely parallel the European in structure and could provide more candidates for the classes of Justice and Obedience and the higher ranks of the Grand Magistery.
In establishing how such a system might work it is worth looking at the family histories of one particular group of Americans, those who held the office of President of the United States.  There have been forty-two individuals who have held this office since the election of George Washington in 1789. Of these, only one, George Washington himself, was certainly an Armiger. Two other Presidents, James Monroe and James Polk were probably descended from Armigerous families, while two others, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, may have been. While the American ancestors of both Monroe and Polk had played a distinguished role in the life of Maryland and Virginia in the case of Monroe, and North Carolina in the case of Polk, the ancestors of neither Buchanan nor Lincoln, however, played any significant role in their country's history and they did not live in a style approximating that of the colonial gentry. Of the remaining Presidents the male line ancestors for several generations of Presidents John Adams (and his son John Quincy Adams), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, William Harrison (and his great-grandson Benjamin Harrison), John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Theodore Roosevelt (and his distant cousin and nephew-in-law Franklin D. Roosevelt), William Taft and Calvin Coolidge, all played a prominent role in the society of their adopted country and would certainly have qualified as eligible for the class of Grace and Devotion if the Canadian Gwyn proofs had been applied.
If the class of Obedience is opened up to knights (or dames) of Magistral Grace, as has been proposed, there may be considerable pressure on the numbers. There are many worthy American knights who already fulfill the spiritual obligations required in their daily lives. The heads of the US and Canadian Associations may then be placed in the difficult position of having to choose between equally meritorious candidates. The broadening of the ranks of Grace and Devotion, on the other hand, could enable the present number of candidates for Obedience to be expanded while still insuring that it remains a nobiliary category. The majority of North Americans are presently excluded from entering the nobiliary ranks, whatever the past and future achievements of their families since their arrival in the New World. Until this barrier is lifted there will continue to be opposition from North Americans to the application of the requirements for proof of nobility for certain ranks of the Order.
With one Canadian knight of Justice, one professed Polish knight resident in the US and two knights of Justice in simple vows (one each in the Federal and Western Associations), it will soon be possible to form a Priory in North America. This would also include the knights (and dames, should the class of Obedience be opened up to ladies) of Obedience. There are already a number of potential candidates for the class of Grace and Devotion presently enrolled among the membership, and many more who could be eligible for this rank if there is a reform of the rules for the New World. It may then be possible to insure a substantial representation of North American knights (and dames) without radically changing the historic composition of the upper ranks of the Order.
The future of the Order of Malta's humanitarian work and its traditional example of leadership in the Catholic community depends on the enthusiasm and generosity of an expanding membership and on continuing to attract those who represent the most privileged and influential of modern Catholic society. The election of Fra' Andrew Bertie has meant that, in practice, the lingua franca of the Order is now English and the new Grand Master has already demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to listen to the views of the membership and that he is sympathetic to the concerns of the American knights, many of whom have felt excluded from full participation in the Order. With a better understanding of American society on the part of the great officers of the Order, so will an environment of closer co-operation be easier to realize. Only with the active participation of the whole membership will the Order's influence and importance in the Catholic world continue to grow and flourish, and only thus will it succeed in fulfilling its traditional Catholic, moral and humanitarian role in the New World and Eastern Europe as effectively as it does in Italy, Germany and France.
 The stated intention was to "preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature for which they have fought and bled, and without which the high rank of a rational being is a curse instead of a blessing". Also "An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective States, that union and national honor so essentially necessary to their happiness, and the future dignity of the American empire".
 The membership can be enlarged by the addition of the single representative descendants of those officers who are not already represented by a member. However it is not merely sufficient for an applicant to prove that he descends from the recorded officer but also that he is a worthy representative and applications are voted on by the committees of the societies of the states from which the original officer came.
 In addition to the Society of the Cincinnati (the only such group formed at the date of the event or circumstance to be commemorated) there are numerous other societies (whose requirements for membership vary considerably in scope) commemorating descent from a particular class or group, nearly all permitting descent through the female line and which, unlike the Cincinnati, are not limited by the number of descendants of each ancestor who may petition to join. The principle societies for gentleman are: The Society of Colonial Wars - for any male adult lineally descended in the male or female line (or failing such, collaterally descended) from an ancestor (a) who served in the armed forces of the Colonies or in the forces of Great Britain when participating with the Colonies, between the settlement of Jamestown 13 May 1607 and the battle of Lexington 19 April 1775; or (b) who held high office (defined in the statutes) in any of the Colonies between those dates; this has various state organisations and recently a parallel Society of Daughters of Colonial Wars; The Society of Sons of the Revolution - for any adult male descended from someone whose actions in the war of independence would have made them liable to conviction of treason against Great Britain while remaining always loyal to the Colonies; The Society of Sons of the American Revolution - for any adult male descended from an ancestor who rendered material aid to the cause of independence; The General Society of the War of 1812 - for any adult male descended lineally from someone who served in the U.S. armed forces in that war; The Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States - for the descendants of officers who served the union cause in the war between the states (the badges of these Military societies may be worn on military dress uniform); The Society of Mayflower Descendants - for adult males and females lineally descended from persons who sailed on the Mayflower; The Society for Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence - for adult males and females descended from the signers of the Declaration. Of a slightly different nature is the Society of Saint George, founded in the 1770's for gentlemen of English descent. The principle societies for ladies are: The Society of Colonial Dames of America - for adult ladies descended lineally from some ancestor of "worthy life" who settled in the colonies prior to 1750, and who himself or one of his descendants held before 1783 a prominent office in the colonial government, rendered efficient service to his country during the colonial period, or founded an important institution which has survived to the present day; The Society of Daughters of the Revolution - for adult female lineal descendants according to the same rules as the Sons of the Revolution; The Society of Daughters of the American Revolution - for adult females lineally descended according to the same rules as the Society of Sons of the American Revolution but also from the mothers of those who rendered the qualifying service; the Daughters of the Cincinnati - a recently founded but parallel organization to the male Society of that name. There were many more such organizations at the beginning of the century often with badges resembling decorations, but support for such groups has declined and only the largest and most prominent have survived.
 Founded as an association of gentlemen in Mexico City by the then current American officers serving with the army of Occupation and today composed of the descendants of those officers, both direct and collateral. This was the first major American conflict fought on foreign soil. The President is the Hon Richard B. Abell and the Society meets annually in addition to meeting to commemorate the battle of San Jacinto where General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, President of Mexico, was defeated.
 In the US Associations, in particular, the hierarchy has much greater influence than elsewhere; the Church's responsibilities towards the Order are actually limited to celebrating its Masses, superintending retreats and reporting whether postulants for admission are Catholics in good standing. Their admission as Chaplains ad honorem is a privilege conferred by grace of the Grand Master.
 September 23, 1890.
 The foundation of the Society of the Cincinnati gave rise to concerns (notably expressed by both Jefferson and the Marquis de Mirabeau), that this would somehow give rise to the creation of permanent inequalities in society. This did not prove to be the case and the sole exclusive privilege of membership, of wearing the ribbon and badge on military uniform, has certainly not caused any permanent rift among the citizenry.
 With the exception of the Society of the War of 1812 these bodies were founded by the officers for themselves and their descendants.
 Such as "de" or "von".
 General Hume was President-General of the Society of the Cincinnati.
 This is not limited to those who have received a noble title, but also includes those of the British and Continental nobility or gentry who are descended from ancient but untitled families, noble by origin or creation.
 Among these were the late Peter J. Grace, who would certainly have qualified for the rank of Grace and Devotion and another former President of a US Association still serving the Order. In addition there are a number of descendants of Colonial families, British gentry and European nobles who are presently members in the rank of Magistral Grace..
 It must be emphasized that such descent did not confer any right of admission.
 The principle source for this study is Debrett's Presidents of the United States, by David Williamson, 1989.