Corruption of Blood

The doctrine of corruption of blood mandated that when a person committed a criminal or treasonous act, he and his entire family became outlaws. As a consequence, the offender forfeited all of his property, real and personal. In addition, the offender could no longer transfer his property, either during his lifetime or on death. The property itself fell to the crown.

Blackstone indicates in his commentaries that the Normans introduced corruption of blood into English law on their conquest of the Isles. After 1066, civil disabilities were imposed through ‘‘attainder,’’ a procedure that declared a criminal convicted of treason or a felony ‘‘attained.’’ Attainder immediately led to corruption of blood, forfeiture and loss of all civil rights. This denial of all rights became referred to as ‘‘civil death.’’

By the late eighteenth century, the penalty had come under attack in England as unduly harsh and lacking in use, as rehabilitative principles began their ascent during the Age of Enlightenment. During this time, the English parliament created felonies without corruption of blood as penalty. It ultimately abolished corruption of blood in 1870.

The U.S. Constitution rejected the penalty in the Corruption of Blood Clause of Article III. It limits forfeiture for treason to the traitor’s lifetime and indicates its hostility to the punishment also in the Bill of Attainder Clause. These are among the substantive values, as Alexander Hamilton noted, included in the Constitution itself. Why the founding fathers rejected corruption of blood remains unclear, but they seem to have been concerned about creating familial, rather than individual, punishment. The decisions in Wallach v. Riswick and Justice Miller’s dissent in Ex parte Garland both point in this direction. After the constitutional prohibitions, the federal government passed complementary legislation that remained on the books until the 1980s.

Several state constitutions also contain corruption of blood clauses. However, despite federal and state prohibitions, the problems created by corruption of blood continued because of civil death provisions that prohibited inmates, and especially lifers, from entering into contracts and from inheriting property. Therefore, their rights to grant property to their children was limited, albeit they were not restricted from bequeathing property they held at the time of conviction to their children. Modern forfeiture statutes also raise some of the same problems inherent in the corruption of blood penalty.

Despite the attempt to protect children from the sins of their parents, in many other situations, the law penalizes children for choices their parents made. This held particularly true for children born out of wedlock but continues to other groups of children, such as the noncitizen children of undocumented immigrants who may be barred from access to certain public goods. Moreover, the prohibition on corruption of blood does not entail prohibition on other consequences of a criminal offense, many of which also impact the offender’s family. Among them are the denial of welfare benefits to the offender, restrictions on access to one’s children because of incarceration, and inability to provide appropriately for one’s family because of statutory limitations on employment.

NORA V. DEMLEITNER

References and Further Reading

  • U.S. Const. art. I, 9. cl. 3, art. I, 10, cl. 1; art. III, 3, cl. 2.
  • William Blackstone, Commentaries.
  • History and Theory of Civil Disabilities, Vand. L. Rev. 23 (1970): 941.
  • Stier, Max, Note, Corruption of Blood and Equal Protection: Why the Sins of the Parents Should Not Matter, Stan. L. Rev. 44 (1992): 727.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. (4 Wall) 333 (1866)
  • Wallach v. Van Riswick, 92 U.S. 202 (1875)

See also Bill of Attainder; Civil Death; Collateral Consequences

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