Arms of Joseph McMillan
The American Heraldry Society (AHS) is very much respected in the heraldic world and maintains one of the most popular forums dedicated to heraldry in the English language. What especially differentiates the AHS from the other societies and forums is the particular focus on heraldry in the United States, taking into account the mixed heritage of its people and the intricacies of its Constitution.
A thread was recently started in the forum of the AHS dealing with the question of how to differentiate the arms of adopted children vis a vis those of biological children.
As expected, the thread evoked a flurry of responses and examples of what happens in other countries were brought up.
Some jurisdictions, such as England and Scotland, have developed elaborate practices on how to differentiate the arms that children inherit and have devised special marks for adopted and “illegitimate” children. For example in England, just like a second-born son would differentiate the arms with a crescent, an adopted child would use a chain link to denote the “link” to the adoptive family.
However, as the AHS covers the United States, what happens elsewhere is not really relevant.
Joseph McMillan, whose arms are at the top of this post, is the Director of Research for the Society and also a member of its Board of Directors. He has a very deep and extensive knowledge in heraldry and has published numerous articles in academic journals both in the USA and abroad. He very clearly put together the most reasonable position, that I agree with 100%, and is very much in line with the traditions and laws of the United States.
Here is his post:
Let me preface this with the obligatory acknowledgement that I know this is a free country, everyone can do heraldically whatever he pleases, and no one elected me the heraldry czar. (I would, however, ask that a family that adopted arms two weeks or two years ago not try to dignify these whims under the heading of “custom.”)
Now here’s why differencing for adoption in the United States is un-heraldic and even un-American.
The English rule requiring a mark of difference to be added to arms inherited by an adopted child is justified on the grounds that the English adoption statute excludes adopted children from succeeding to dignities. Arms were famously described by the Court of Chivalry in the 1954 Manchester case as being “in the nature of a dignity.” But in the United States arms cannot possibly be in the nature of a dignity, because American law does not recognize the existence of inherited dignities.
Furthermore, applying the English (or Scottish) practice on this matter to American arms is anachronistic. Modern adoption–that is, the kind of adoption in which the child of perfect strangers becomes a legally full-fledged member of another family–is a distinctively American invention that was introduced in the mid-19th century. It wasn’t until 1926 that such adoptions were possible in the UK, and some time after that that the kings of arms came up with the chain-link difference to signify that a child was adopted. By that time, we in the United States had been adopting children and presumably allowing them to inherit arms on level terms with their siblings for the better part of a century.
Finally, consider that the reason the English heralds devised a difference for adopted children in the first place was that there was, in their view, a legal distinction between biological and adopted children that still had to be signified in the arms. It is the same logic that drives them to insist on differences for bastardy and, until recently, to insist that married women could only bear arms impaled with those of their husbands. In all these cases, the heraldic “sign” signified a reality that existed in the law of the land outside of heraldry. The same is true of the logic behind differencing for cadency.
But ever since adoption as we know it was invented, the laws in the United States have always treated adopted children as fully equal to biological children. For example, the first modern adoption statute, the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act of 1851, states: “A child so adopted, as aforesaid, shall be deemed, for the purposes of inheritance and succession by such child, custody of the person and right of obedience by such parent or parents by adoption, and all other legal consequences and incidents of the natural relation of parents and children, the same to all intents and purposes as if such child had been born in lawful wedlock of such parents or parent by adoption, saving only that such child shall not be deemed capable of taking property expressly limited to the heirs of the body or bodies of such petitioner or petitioners.” To require differencing for adoption in the United States would therefore be to impose the use of a sign when there’s nothing substantive for it to signify.
Which strikes me as bad heraldry.
– Joseph McMillan, posted on May 9 2011 in the forums of the American Heraldry Society
I don’t think any commentary is necessary as the above stands on its own.