The historical consensus
Prior to 2008, no American authority in history ever denied the universal consensus that anyone born a citizen of the United States within one of the 50 states qualifies as a natural born citizen and, meeting the additional requirements of age and residency, is eligible to run for President of the United States. The Framers of the Constitution had very little to say on the subject, but other contemporary authorities such as William Rawle, appointed by George Washington as District Attorney for Pennsylvania, wrote in 1825:
…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
In 1844, assistant Vice Chancellor Lewis H. Sandford of the 1st Circuit of the New York Chancery Court, after surveying the legal history of this question, wrote in the case of Lynch v Clarke that it was the “universal impression of the public mind” that:
The term citizen was used in the constitution as a word, the meaning of which was already established and well understood. And the constitution itself contains a direct recognition of the subsisting common law principle, in the section which defines the qualification of the President. “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President,” … The only standard which then existed, of a natural born citizen, was the rule of the common law, and no different standard has been adopted since. Suppose a person should be elected President who was native born, but of alien parents, could there be any reasonable doubt that he was eligible under the constitution? I think not.
This was affirmed by Edward Bates, US Attorney General under Abraham Lincoln, who wrote in 1862:
And our Constitution, in speaking of natural born citizens, uses no affirmative language to make them such, but only recognizes and reaffirms the universal principle, common to all nations, and as old as political society, that the people born in a country do constitute the nation, and, as individuals, are natural members of the body politic.
And just this past year, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:
All of our Presidents have, to date, been born in the 50 states. Notably, President Obama was born in the state of Hawaii, and so is clearly a natural born citizen.
Despite this clear historical consensus, the candidacy of Barack Obama brought out a number of people challenging the status quo, who even made claims that they were taught otherwise in their high school Civics courses, even though no curriculum or text book has ever been found to support this notion.
The historical controversy
Despite the historical consensus, there has not been universal agreement in the United States about citizenship, far from it. When I opened this article with the universal statement, “anyone born a citizen of the United States within one of the 50 states qualifies as a natural born citizen,” I carefully avoided the controversy by using the qualifying phrase, “born a citizen.” There have been throughout our nation’s history those who have disagreed with the proposition that persons born in the United States are automatically citizens. The most notable example of those denied citizenship by some were those born in the United States into slavery. Mr. Bates and Mr. Rawle (and probably Mr. Sandford) were staunch abolitionists. Others, like Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney writing his opinion in the case of Dred Scott v Sandford (1857), declared that no black man could be a citizen of the United States within the definition of the Constitution.
The United States Civil War decided the question, abolished slavery, and set the climate for the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that forever settled the question of citizenship for those born in the United States and under its jurisdiction. (Certain persons such as the families of foreign ambassadors are by treaty not under the jurisdiction of the United States, and so not covered by the 14th Amendment. The US Supreme Court in United States v Wonk Kim Ark clarified who is included under the jurisdiction of the United States, and concluded that the children of resident aliens are covered.)
The current controversy
In the historical record, we find the phrases “born a citizen,” and “natural born citizen” and “native born citizen” used interchangeably. While one might draw some technical distinction between the terms, early authorities generally did not. This leads to confusion, and opens the door to those would want to interpret the historical record as if these distinctions existed. What the various proponents of the novel theory that natural born citizens must have “two citizen parents” are actually doing is resurrecting the historical argument over who is born a citizen (an argument that is now settled) and trying to avoid what the historical record says by trying to hide among doubts as to who was considered a citizen.
- Response to Eligibility Primer (Part 1)
- Response to Eligibility Primer (Part 2)
- Understanding “natural born citizen”
- Indiana appeals court defines “natural born citizen”
- Is the natural born citizen argument over?
- Supreme Court Justice Scalia believes natural born citizenship is jus soli
- Natural born citizen: clarified!
- De Vattel for Dummies
- Natural Born Citizen for Dummies