Honorable Lords and Pretended Barons: Sorting Out the Noblemen of the American Revolution

The Revolutionary War brought a substantial number of European noblemen to North America, a region that lacked a hereditary aristocracy. Although most of these members of the nobility held genuine titles, a handful pretended to be of noble birth to enhance their stature in America. But what exactly did a noble title signify, how were noblemen properly addressed, and what is the proper manner of referring to noblemen when writing about the Revolution? These may appear to be minor issues to some, yet others take them very seriously, as I learned at a conference when I made the mistake of mentioning “Lord Charles Cornwallis” in conversation with a visitor from the United Kingdom.

The first hereditary nobles in England were created by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. The number and types of nobles expanded in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as English kings created new titles to reward their followers and maintain political stability in the feudal system. By the eighteenth century the hereditary aristocracy in England was well established and consisted of five levels of nobility, along with a sixth inherited title that, while prestigious, did not convey noble status. Most nobles attained their position by birth; however, the monarch had the authority to grant noble status in recognition of meritorious service on behalf of the crown and country. Appointment to some positions also conferred nobility.

Dukes occupied the highest position in the English nobility. When the title was introduced, all those holding the rank of duke were male members of the royal family. Over the centuries, ducal status was granted to leaders of specific regions and royal blood was no longer a prerequisite for such rank. In the Revolutionary era, ducal titles remained associated with geographic areas, for example, the Duke of Manchester, who urged the government to act with restraint in its efforts to subdue the rebellious colonies. The customary references to dukes were simply by title, or as “the most noble duke of …” All of a duke’s sons received the courtesy title “lord” and were referred to as “Lord …,” with the title preceding the name.

The next highest rank in the British nobility was a marquis (or marquess). The title originally referred to a “march lord,” the leader of a marchland or border area, territories that were often contested by neighboring peoples or governments. Thus a marquis was at one time responsible for defending a part of his monarch’s borders, whereas a duke’s territory was in the country’s secure interior region. The title’s origins lived on in the designation of the wife of a marquis as a “marchioness.” The rank had lost its frontier connotations by the eighteenth century. A marquis was properly addressed by first name, title, and last name, which could be either a family name or the location of the marquis’s lands. The sons of a marquis were granted the courtesy title of “lord.”

Earls ranked third among hereditary nobles. At one time, earls collected taxes and other forms of revenue for the monarch, although that responsibility had ended centuries before the Revolution. Like a marquis, an earl was known by his first name, title, and surname, the last again being either his family name or a location with which the earl was associated. If an earl held a second, lower-ranking title, his eldest son used it. However, unlike the sons of a duke or marquis, any other male children of earls could not use the courtesy title “lord.” Instead, they were referred to as “the honorable …” The most famous earl to serve in the American Revolution was Charles, Earl Cornwallis. He was often referred to as Lord Cornwallis, “lord” being an acceptable designation for all nobles below the rank of duke. When combined with military rank, the proper reference to him or other noble officers is Lieutenant General Charles, Earl (or Lord) Cornwallis. Similarly, Cornwallis’s subordinate in the southern campaign is properly designated Lieutenant Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon. Rawdon, as eldest son of the Earl of Moira, was entitled to be addressed in such a manner because he held his father’s secondary title.

Earls with location-related titles are referred to by their full name followed by their title rather than the family’s surname as was the case with Cornwallis and Rawdon. Therefore, the titles of the secretary of state for the American department at the start of the Revolution, the Earl of Dartmouth, and the last royal governor of Virginia, the Earl of Dunmore, being associated with places, were William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, and John Murray, Earl of Dunmore.

Below earls were viscounts, originally and literally “vice-counts,” the deputies of earls (who were the equivalent of a Continental European count), and then barons, who had at one time been the holders of land grants from the monarch. Like a marquis or earl, it was and is acceptable to refer to viscounts and barons by the shorthand term of “lord.” The sons of viscounts and barons were not permitted to use the courtesy title of “lord,” but like the younger sons of earls their names were preceded by “honorable.” The last British hereditary title, which did not carry noble status, was baronet. A baronetcy was in effect a hereditary knighthood. The best-known baronets of the Revolution were Georgia’s royal governor Sir James Wright, and Sir John Johnson, son of baronet Sir William Johnson, the former Indian Superintendent of the Northern Department.

When writing about British noblemen of the Revolution, it is important to use their correct designation both to be precise and to avoid angering those who take such matters very seriously. For example, if using the shorthand title “lord,” one would refer to the royal governor of Virginia as “John Murray, Lord Dunmore,” since he held a noble title in his own right, while the last royal governor of South Carolina would be referred to as “Lord William Campbell,” since he was a younger son of the Duke of Argyll and held only a courtesy title. Sometimes, it should be noted, contemporaries used hereditary titles in a sarcastic manner. The best example of this was employed by British General Sir Henry Clinton. When he was angry or frustrated by the actions of his subordinate, Cornwallis, Clinton had a habit of referring to Cornwallis as “the noble Earl.” The contexts in which this phrase appears make it clear that Clinton was not using the title to indicate respect.

Many French noblemen served in the Continental Army as volunteers or commanded allied French land and naval forces. The French nobility was structured in a form almost identical to the English system, not surprising since the English largely adopted the older French model. A duke (duc) was the highest ranking French nobleman, followed by a marquis, count (comte, equivalent to an English earl), viscount (viscomte), and baron. In contrast to the British, who frequently used the term “lord” when referring to any noble below the rank of duke, in France a lord (seigneur) was not a member of the nobility but simply the owner of land or holder of other privileges that gave the seigneur authority over certain people, such as tenant farmers.

Like their British counterparts, French noblemen generally acquired their titles by birth, as an award from the monarch, or from the office they held. This last method was far more common in France than in Great Britain; until the French Revolution of 1789 there were some four thousand positions in France that automatically conferred noble status on the holder. These included judicial posts, municipal offices, and positions in the royal administration. Until 1750, commissions in the French armed forces were restricted to those of noble birth; in November of that year, the king allowed men of non-noble origins to receive commissions in what was apparently an effort to improve the quality of the officer corps and provide incentives for commoners to enter military service. Any officer of common origin who attained the rank of general was awarded noble status. It is interesting to note that senior commanders of both land and naval forces were designated generals; the French military did not use the rank of admiral for the navy until after the 1789 revolution.

One of the better known French noblemen who served in the Revolution, properly designated Jean-Baptiste, Comte d’Estaing, began service as a humble musketeer in the French army in 1745. His military skills earned him a series of promotions and by 1763 he was a lieutenant general in the navy and a count. Francois-Joseph-Paul, Comte de Grasse, who defeated the British fleet at the Battle of the Capes off Chesapeake Bay in September 1781, was born into the nobility. Another key French participant in the events surrounding the Yorktown campaign was Jean-Baptiste Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, the son of a prominent noble family.

Portrait of Lafayette (1790) by Joseph Boze. Source: Massachusetts Historical Society
Portrait of Lafayette (1790) by Joseph Boze. Source: Massachusetts Historical Society

The most famous French nobleman to hold a commission in the Continental Army was Marie Jean Paul Joseph Roche Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Given the length of his proper name and title, it is not surprising that he is most commonly referred to as the “Marquis de Lafayette,” or simply “Lafayette.” His noble family was one of the most distinguished in France, and he strengthened its powerful political connections when he married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles in 1774; she was the daughter of the Duc d’Ayen and related to the royal family. Other French nobles who served with American forces include Francois Lellorquis, Marquis de Malmedy, and Charles Armand-Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouerie. The latter officer repudiated his status when he arrived in America in 1776 to demonstrate his support for the colonists’ republicanism. He is therefore usually referred to as Charles Armand.

Unlike Armand who gave up his actual noble status, there was one American officer who insisted that he was a member of the British nobility. William Alexander’s claim to be the rightful 6th Earl of Stirling appears rather bizarre for a general in the Continental Army. During a five-year stay in Britain beginning in 1756, Alexander asserted that he was the rightful heir to the vacant Scottish earldom of Stirling. Although the testimony of two elderly gentlemen in support of Alexander’s claim convinced an Edinburgh jury, the House of Lords refused to confirm Alexander’s noble status. He returned to America where he used the title anyway, and even George Washington humored him by addressing Alexander as “my lord” in their correspondence.

Another nobleman whose title has been questioned is Johann, Baron de Kalb, a Bavarian-born French officer who became a major general in the Continental Army. Some historians believe that de Kalb’s claim of noble status is spurious; however, since there is strong evidence that de Kalb held the rank of major general in the French Army, and such a rank conferred noble status under the royal edict issued in 1750, de Kalb probably was an actual baron. Certainly his claim is stronger than that of Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, the former Prussian officer famous for training Washington’s soldiers during the Valley Forge winter of 1777-1778. Von Steuben did hold a knighthood in the German state of Baden, the Order of Fidelity, but that was based on a falsified genealogy provided by Steuben’s father. After receiving that honor, Steuben went a step farther and began styling himself a baron, although there is no evidence that any title of nobility was ever conferred upon him. Nonetheless, it is as “Baron von Steuben” that this officer is best known.

British and French nobles were not the only members of Europe’s hereditary aristocracy to participate in the Revolution. There were nobles among the German troops hired by the British government, such as Friedrich Adolph, Baron von Riedesel, and even a Polish count, Casimir Pulaski (although historians seldom use his title), who served with the Americans. Many members of the Spanish nobility participated in campaigns against the British in theaters beyond mainland North America. It is ironic that so many members of Europe’s hereditary aristocracy contributed to the creation of an American republic where titles of nobility and the privileges that accompanied them would exist only in memory as relics of the new nation’s British colonial origins.

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  • Jim: Excellent article, and thanks for the information on how to write the full name of a noble with a military rank. D’Estaing was a member of a long-established aristocratic family (I recall reading going back over 800 years!). The information I have is that he joined a French infantry regiment at the age of 9, but as a mascot, at his father’s behest; his father was a lieutenant general at the time. I also recall that Charles Lee received a rank as ensign at the age of 14, but he did not begin service until two years later, when he finished his schooling. His father was a colonel in British infantry regiment and his mother had some aristocratic lineage. So having underage children enlisted in regiments seemed to be some sort of motivational technique for the children to follow a particular path! Thanks, Christian

  • Thanks for an outstanding article on a topic I’ve never seen addressed anywhere before. I can’t begin to keep all this straight so I’ve printed a copy for reference.

    It has been decades since I’ve heard the 1962 hit song “Duke of Earl” but while reading your article the lyrics started whirling in my head…….

  • Really interesting article Jim. We are all much better informed about the proper designation for hereditary titles of the British, French and German officers in the Revolution.

  • In the case of William Alexander (the American who called himself Lord Stirling based on his claim to a Scottish title), the New Jersey State Archives and the New-York Historical Society have documents going back to the 1760’s in which he signed his name as “Stirling” – and nothing else. For example, “Dear Sir, I received your rent payment today. Stirling” Imagine doing that today….

  • I might add the name of The Marquis de Lafayette to Christian’s group of “boy” soldiers. The Marquis joined the French Army at 13 years of age and was just 19 when he serrepticiously left (ran away from?) France for the American Colonies where he became a Major General in the fledgling American Army.

  • Jim:
    Just got to your article four years late (looking for info on “Count” Pulaski. Just wanted to mention that the Polish aristocracy did not have formal titles – belief was that all nobles were equal and were referred as “Pan” (today translated as Mister). That was the theory but each knew his place in the hierarchy – the most powerful referred to as Magnates. However outside of Poland, Polish nobles usually took the title of the foreign equivalent of their rank in Poland. The Pulaski family’s place in Polish society was equivalent to the title of Count, so while Pulaski was in exile in France he used it, thus in coming to America he was referred by this title. In contrast, Thaddeus Koszciusko was of the “minor nobility” equivalent to a knight (Sir) never used a title and considered himself a true “republican” unlike Pulaski who never lost his aristocratic roots.

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