One of the most prominent of the members of the United States Constitutional Convention in 1787 was Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a military leader during the Revolutionary War, member of Congress under the Articles of Confederation and would later serve as Secretary of the Treasury. Today, Hamilton is probably most recognized today as the face on the US $10 bill and by more serious-minded folk as one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, a contemporary defense of the Constitution before its ratification.
Hamilton’s views on Presidential eligibility are found in a “Draft Constitution” that he wrote. It says:
§. I. No person shall be eligible to the office of President of the United States unless he be now a Citizen of one of the States, or hereafter be born a Citizen of the United States.
There’s nothing about “parents” in that qualification and that’s how one Framer felt about the subject. That would be the end of the story, except for what happened a couple of centuries later.
A Yale University Law School student named Jill Pryor wrote a paper published in the Yale Law Review in 1988, titled: “The Natural Born Citizenship Clause and Presidential Eligibility: an Approach for Resolving Two Hundred Years of Uncertainty.” I know Pryor’s paper for its well known opening remark:
It is well settled that “native-born” citizens, those born in the United States, qualify as natural born.”
The “uncertainty” in the title of Pryor’s article refers to the status of those born citizens outside the United States, like candidates George Romney (Mexico), Lowell Weicker (France) and John McCain (Canal Zone).
In her paper, Pryor discusses the Hamilton Draft as introducing two important ideas, “first, that those currently citizens will not be excluded from presidential eligibility, and second, that the President must be born a citizen. Without the modifier ‘natural,’ the essence of the text is apparent: the President need not be native born, but must be a citizen from birth.” In addition to that observation, Pryor also describes Hamilton’s Draft as part of the “June 18 sketch” that Hamilton presented to the Convention.
Enter: the Birthers
The Birthers take this information and make the argument something like: “If the Framers thought that ‘natural born citizen’ just meant ‘citizen at birth’ they would have accepted Hamilton’s language, but in fact they explicitly rejected it.”
The problem with this argument is that it is based on what Pryor said, and she made a scholarly error. Max Farrand in his indispensable 3-volume Records of the Federal Convention 1787 is the original source for Hamilton’s Draft, and Farrand says:
[The Draft] was not submitted to the Convention and has no further value than attaches to the personal opinions of Hamilton.
Volume 3, Appendix F, p. 619.
The Convention didn’t reject the language of Hamilton. With no rejection, there is no argument that “citizen from birth” means something different from “natural born citizen.” We are left, then, with one influential Framer’s opinion.