One of the very first articles I wrote for this web site, in December 2008, was George Washington, first in war, first in peace, and first presidential usurper. It wasn’t intended to be serious, but rather to expose the silliness of some literalist reading of history. The specious argument discussed in that article said that George Washington was not a citizen of the United States at the time of the ratification of the Constitution (Virginia joined later), and so not eligible to be president. The reason this argument is false is that the United States existed before the ratification of the Constitution, at least since the Articles of Confederation and I would argue following the Declaration of Independence.
Implicit in that story and the source where I found the idea, is the idea that George Washington was only eligible to be president because of that special exception in the Constitutional requirement of natural born citizenship, for those who were already citizens when the Constitution was ratified. However, that is not really the case. George Washington was a natural born citizen.
I explored the citizenship of Washington in a recent article: The Jay Letter. In that article, I made a strong case that John Jay, who would become the first chief justice of the Supreme Court believed George Washington to be a natural born citizen, since Jay wanted this to be a requirement for the commander in chief — a post he could scarcely consider George Washington ineligible for.
The target of that article on the Jay Letter was not the citizenship of persons born in Virginia before and after the Revolution, but rather the fact that Washington’s father died a British subject. I got vociferous objection to the idea that Washington was a natural born citizen from commenters here. What disappointed me, though, was no opponent discovered the real loophole, that even though Washington’s father died a British subject, his father was also a natural born citizen of Virginia. That is, George Washington and his father were both natural born citizens of Virginia, whether Virginia was a British Colony or a state of the United States. So Washington’s father shared his sons primary allegiance — to Virginia, and in 1887 being a natural born citizen of Virginia meant being a natural born citizen of the United States. [For those stumbling on this article unaware of the rest of what’s written on this web site, I am not saying that natural born citizens must have citizen fathers.]
Lest anyone remain unconvinced that natural born citizens of the British colonies were also natural born citizens of the United States, let me point the reader to one of the numerous state legislative acts passed regarding the rights of naturalized citizens. I showed examples of these in my recent article, Tracing natural born citizen. We see language from as early as 1785 such as:
he shall be deemed, adjudged and taken to be a citizen of this Commonwealth, and entitled to all the liberties, rights and privileges of a natural born citizen
“Natural born citizen” in this naturalization act is the terminology used to describe those persons born citizens of the Commonwealth. It could hardly refer just to the 9-year old children born since the Revolution!
The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts said in the case of Ainslie v Martin (99 Mass R. 456, 457):
It was therefore then considered the law of the land, that all persons born within the territories of the government and people, although before the declaration of independence, were born within the allegiance of the same government and people, as the successor of the former sovereign, who had abdicated his throne.
So George Washington was first in war, first in peace, and the first natural born American president.