Understanding natural born citizen gets confusing when the definition of the term “natural born citizen” is conflated with the kinds of people who fit it (qualifications that change by country and over time). Some hugely long articles and comments have appeared, and they are long because they are wrestling with, or taking advantage of, the confusion. I must admit that I was confounded over this for quite a while myself (being self taught and not a trained lawyer). I finally got straightened out after reading some history books.
Perhaps the analogy with “naturalized citizen” will make things clear. One would never define naturalized citizen as someone who takes an oath after living in the United States for some number of years, or someone who marries, or someone…. Congress can make new naturalization qualifications any day it wants. A naturalized citizen is defined as someone who becomes a citizen through law after they are born. Once defined, then we can enumerate the various ways someone can become a naturalized citizen in the United States (or some other country). The definition of “naturalized citizen” hasn’t changed in 200 years, but the rules for becoming one certainly have.
The same error would be to define natural born citizen in terms of who qualifies to be one, someone who is born this and has parents that. That’s not a definition of what a natural born citizen is, but rather of possible qualifications under a particular constitution or set of laws to be one.
So let’s get to the definition.
In the US Constitution, we find “natural born citizens” and “naturalization” implying the existence of “natural-ized citizens”. That suffix “ized” means “made” and it’s rather obvious then that those born citizens are our natural born citizens and those made citizens later are our natural-ized citizens. This is consistent with the Immigration Act of 1790 that declared the children of citizens born overseas natural born citizens. It is consistent with the usage of British Common Law, as in the long comment citing Blackstone by Ken Dunbar. (If you aren’t convinced, ask yourself this question: did the framers of the Constitution have two different senses of the word “natural” as they wrote it in “natural born citizen” and “naturalization”? I think not.) This further explains why we have any number of court decisions that talk about citizenship at birth in one sentence and natural born citizen in the next, while making no distinction between them and why we never see separate qualifications stated for “natural born citizen.”1
Defining natural born citizen (as it always has been) as one who is born a citizen2, we can then ask who are citizens of the United States at the time of their birth. It would appear that anyone born under the jurisdiction of the United States and those born of U. S. Citizens overseas and those born in Puerto Rico and those born in other situations qualify to be among those citizens at birth, such as Wong, Elg and Obama, who are our natural born citizens.
I hope the reader found this neither long nor confusing.
1The judge in Minor v Happersett was not expressing doubts about the definition of “natural born citizen” but most precisely about who were citizens at birth prior to the 14th Amendment. For cases that use the terms interchangeably see SCOTUS & “Natural Born Citizen” – A Compendium.
2From Rawle’s View of the Constitution (1825) which was quoted in the Congressional debate of the 14th Amendment as well as as by the Supreme Court of Connecticut in the case of the Town of New Hartford v. The Town of Canaan (1886):
The citizens of each state constituted the citizens of the United States when the Constitution was adopted. The rights which appertained to them as citizens of those respective commonwealths, accompanied them in the formation of the great, compound commonwealths which ensued. They became citizens of the latter, without ceasing to be citizens of the former, and he who was subsequently born a citizen of a state, became at the moment of his birth a citizen of the United States. Therefore every person born within the United States, its territories or districts, whether the parents are citizens or aliens, is a natural born citizen in the sense of the Constitution, and entitled to all the rights and privileges appertaining to that capacity.
See also my article Natural Born Citizen: Defined!