The Most Honorable Civilian Office
Honorable Title, Civilian Office and Rank of Colonel
American Civilian Colonels
Historical American Authority Began in 1651
Since the founding of the American Colonies the honorable title of Colonel has been known as the highest recognized title of authority that can be granted to a civilian on the North American Continent. Colonels were responsible for establishing most of the trading and land companies, forts, townships and county governments in the original 13 colonies. The majority of the statesmen that signed the Declaration of Independence were colonels, during the American Revolution the highest designated official was the colonel.
The colonel became the most prevalent figure of the American landscape beginning in 1651. The US Constitution states: "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States" which makes American colonelcy the closest thing to a noble title.
Today US States use the honorary title to recognize civilians with a colonelcy certificate, commission or proclamation for their most outstanding deeds, noteworthy accomplishments and community service rendered to the state. The most well-known and frequently awarded is the Kentucky Colonel Commission which is bestowed through letters patent by the Governor of the Commonwealth. In 1775 a group of colonels began the Westward expansion as pioneers and founded the 14th colony, Transylvania at Boonesborough which was later divided to become known as Kentucky and Tennessee.
A number of other states and jurisdictions award colonelcy or other similar commissions as awards as a form of prestigious recognition.
What is a Colonel?
According to the definition of 1770 a colonel in North America is the head of a colony, this is before they had mayors or democratic legal systems of course. Colonels were also the head of a chartered company or a civilian militia which were not legitimized until Patriot Law took effect in most colonies in January 1775. Since that time there has been no permanent civilian title great than that of the Colonel.
States Known to Recognize Colonels
There are a total of 23 US states that have issued colonelcy commissions since America was founded in 1776. The following list may be incomplete, but is based on the past 50 years, a number of lesser jurisdictions have also issued colonelcy certificates and there were also some mail-order pranksters like the Colorado Colonel.
Title as a Rank Was Not Originated by the Military
It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the Honorable Title was adopted as a rank by the US Army, later it was conformed in the 20th century for other branches of the US Armed Forces. Prior to 1802 it was most often used to recognize organizers of companies and sponsors of local militias, where the title was the highest rank, but did not denote colonels themselves being active in any military role except as the commissioners of their own militia troops.
Alternatively under the British Army in the Crown Colonies, colonels were also commissioned as uniformed (red-coat) officers under generals starting around 1750 when the army was formed and militias became prominent. In real life, a commission required being of "good family", having access to money or patronage. No formal military training was mandated to become a colonel.
According to the 1785, "A Dictionary of the English Language" by Samuel Johnson: COLONEL is originally from the word colonialis, civilly it is the leader of a colony in America. From British use: Colonel is also a chief commander of a regiment or is a field officer of the highest rank.
Historical Overview of the Colonel in America
The colonel during the time of Colonial America was the highest appointed office that could be granted to a native colonist. With this authority a person could charter a township, county, company or militia.
The honor of receiving the title of "Colonel" dates back to middle of the 17th century (1600's) in the 13 original colonies. As a title, Colonel was used to distinguish the gentry who lived and worked in these 13 colonies and persisted into the 20th century before becoming known as an honorary and ceremonial status used by governors to distinguish civilians based on their achievements.
Under English Colonial rule, "colonelcy" was purchased from the government resulting in letters patent or an officers commission, which authorized and entitled the subject to form a "company" or "militia". Colonels had the ability to recruit and issue further commissions to those who joined their private companies under the leadership of the person holding the original letters patent. Many of the most prominent figures in history became colonels to protect themselves legally, garner respect and to establish new forts and townships. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Paine and many others were either civilian or militia colonels during their political careers.
Prior to and throughout the American Revolution it was very desirable to become a colonel, especially if you were forming a company to head West to start a community in the unexplored areas beyond the Appalachian range.