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The eligibility debate in Congress

We find that way back at the beginning of our country, a man elected to the first Congress of the United States was challenged because of the citizenship of his British father.

William Smith, born in the British Colony of Carolina, was being in educated in Geneva Switzerland when he came of age during the Revolutionary war. He had been an orphan since age 11. His father was a subject of England and of the colony of Carolina and died a British subject. Smith ran for the US House of Representatives from the district of Charleston 5 years after his return to the new United States and won by a wide margin in a three-way race.

However, two days before the election, one of his opponents, Dr. David Ramsay, published a claim that Smith was ineligible to be a Congressman, not having been a citizen of the United States for the requisite 7 years. (This may have been in retaliation for rumors also circulated that Ramsay, originally from Pennsylvania, was a closet abolitionist.) A bitter exchange in newspaper letters and pamphlets ensued and Ramsay wrote an 8-page pamphlet titled: Manner of Acquiring the Character and Privileges of a Citizen of the United States intended to convince Congress unseat Smith.

Ironically, both Ramsay and Smith were delegates to the South Carolina constitutional convention which ratified the very US Constitution that contained the requirement.

The debate in the house over Smith’s eligibility is found in the Annals of Congress, Gales and Seaton’s History, First Congress, First Session, May 22, 1789. starting on page 412 and continuing through page 425. Here is a text version.

Doctor Ramsay in his petition to Congress argued that Smith could not have been a citizen 7 years because he had not been present the United States for 7 years since the United States existed (having been abroad for education during the Revolution). Ramsay asserted that one becomes a citizen by “birth or inheritance” and that Smith was denied both, having been born in Carolina when it was a British colony, and because his father died a British subject before the Revolution.

Smith countered with compelling evidence that upon his return to South Carolina, he was immediately considered a citizen without taking any oath of loyalty, and his previous residence as a minor in the Colony of Carolina counted towards the qualifications to vote and serve on the South Carolina privy council.

James Madison opened the debate observing that South Carolina law was not specific on the question of citizenship (and that if it were, there would be nothing to debate).  Madison argued that the question should be decided based on South Carolina law to the extent it could be used and then upon general principles. One of these principles was: “It is an established maxim that birth is a criterion of allegiance. Birth, however, derives its force sometimes from place, and sometimes from parentage; but in general place is the most certain criterion; it is what applies in the United States; it will, therefore, be unnecessary to examine any other.” Madison then said: “I conceive that every person who owed this primary allegiance to the particular community in which he was born, retained his right of birth, as a member of a new community; that he was absolved from a secondary allegiance that he had owed to a British sovereign.”

Smith was affirmed by a vote of 36-1. [Note: there were two congressmen named William Smith at the time, one from South Carolina and one from Maryland.]

For more, see my article: 1787 document on citizenship.

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10 Responses to The eligibility debate in Congress

  1. avatar
    Expelliarmus April 3, 2010 at 3:21 am #

    The links in your “Annals of Congress” table don’t work (unfortunately).

  2. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy April 3, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    The links on some of these archive sites are to temporary query results. I have replaced the table with a single hard link to the first page of the actual debate, and you can just click NEXT to scroll through it. I just discovered this set of documents, and so I haven’t had time to read it. It looks to be fascinating.

  3. avatar
    mimi April 3, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Doc,

    That’s quite a find.

    “I conceive that every person who owed this primary allegiance to the particular community in which he was born, retained his right of birth, as a member of a new community; that he was absolved from a secondary allegiance that he had owed to a British sovereign.”

    A Founding Father said that. hahahahaha!!!

  4. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy April 3, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    mimi: That’s quite a find.

    Well, balantine quoted from the same Madison speech here on this blog 9 months ago. As I read the House debate on Smith’s eligibility, I had this growing remembrance that I had read it all before. I just didn’t know the full context of the challenge to Smith last May. So I just rediscovered what ballantine already reported.

    http://www.obamaconspiracy.org/2009/05/james-madison-on-birth-and-allegiance/

  5. avatar
    Brenda Lee May 22, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    Mikhail Kryzhanovsky is all over Internet, pictures too. Why don’t you call CIA Director Leon Panetta and ask him about this CIA secret source and a former KGB spy ? Just say: “I need information on “Filament”, please”.

  6. avatar
    G May 22, 2010 at 11:47 pm #

    Ah, so the latest birther nut-job passion is the crazy conspiracy tales of this CIA/KGB loony!

    LMAO! Yeah, you know the birther’s are scraping the bottom of the barrel and are just about out of crazy ideas when this is their next, great white hope…

  7. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy May 24, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    Brenda Lee: Mikhail Kryzhanovsky is all over Internet, pictures too. Why don’t you call CIA Director Leon Panetta and ask him about this CIA secret source and a former KGB spy ? Just say: “I need information on “Filament”, please”. It has all been deleted.

    Stop posting this off-topic Kryzhanovsky stuff.

  8. avatar
    Lena Bik May 29, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    Mikhail Kryzhanovsky. “Obama’s New World Order”

    On May 27, 2010 Communist Barack Obama transmitted the new U.S. National Security Strategy to the Congress.
    New (Communist) strategy recognizes the existence of a multi-polar world and calls for joint efforts with other existing and emerging centers of influence “to shape an international order that promotes a just peace. We are working to build deeper and more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence — including China, India, and Russia…” the document says.

    OK. Let’s put India aside for a while and talk business.

    1. The world will be ruled by (or distributed among) members of a powerful “triumvirate” -Communist China, Communist Russia and America with a Communist President backed by the Communist Congress.
    2. New world order will never promote a “just peace”, because Communist ideology was never and will never be peaceful. China and Russia place military modernization among their top political priorities.
    3. Those three “key centers of influence” will establish strong political and economic ties to support their Communist regimes and their union, and effectively expand Communist ideology worldwide. Obama will pay his share in the union with advanced American scientific and military technologies.
    4. The union has a future if Obama is re-elected in 2012 or another Democrat takes the Office.

    http://www.resistnet.com

  9. avatar
    G May 29, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    Wow, more bizarre commie/conspiracy fiction nuttiness from Resistnet! Gee, what a surprise. LOL!

    They should partner with Sven to come up with new spy fiction novels. Maybe together they can finally finish “Barry and the Pirates”.

  10. avatar
    SFJeff May 29, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    Heh….they consider Russia to still be communist….and lets just ignore India for the moment shall we.