The subject of dictionaries came up in a previous article. As these remarkable coincidences go, I found myself at an estate sale this morning where I found, and purchased, the great granddaddy of dictionaries, The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1971. Of course, after getting it home, I got out the high-powered magnifying glass and looked up “natural-born.” It has one definition that says:
Having a specified position or character by birth; used esp. with subject.
That was hardly worth lugging 20 pounds of books home, except, in addition to the definition, there were some examples of usage, and one of particular relevance by George Bancroft. It’s not a name I was familiar with, but perhaps I should have been. From the Wikipedia:
George Bancroft (October 3, 1800 – January 17, 1891) was an American historian and statesman who was prominent in promoting secondary education both in his home state and at the national level. During his tenure as U.S. Secretary of the Navy, he established the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1845. Among his best-known writings is the magisterial series, History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent.
It is from that latter work that the OED quotes:
Every one who first saw the light on American soil was a natural-born American citizen.
Bancroft’s 6-volume History (1876) is a remarkable work, and I especially want to read the section on the Federal Convention that wrote our Constitution, where he actually mentions the debate over presidential qualifications. However, the quotation from the OED is in the context of the United States in 1777, between the Revolution and The Articles of Confederation (the Constitution’s predecessor). Here is the quote’s larger context from Volume 5 and I invite you to enjoy this slice of American history as I did:
During the sixteen months that followed the introduction of the plan for confederation prepared by Dickinson, the spirit of separation, fostered by uncontrolled indulgence, and by opposing interests and institutions, visibly increased in congress; and every change in his draft, which of itself proposed only a league of states, diminished the energetic authority which is the first guarantee of liberty.
The United States of America included within their jurisdiction all the territory that had belonged to the old thirteen colonies; and, if Canada would so choose, they were ready to annex Canada.
In the republics of Greece, citizenship had in theory been confined to a body of kindred families, which formed an hereditary caste, a multitudinous aristocracy. Such a system could have no permanent vitality; and the Greek republics, as the Italian republics in after-ages, died out for want of citizens. America adopted the principle of the all-embracing unity of society. As the American territory was that of the old thirteen colonies, so the free people residing upon it formed the free people of the United States. Subject and citizen were correlative terms; subjects of the monarchy became citizens of the republic. He that had owed primary allegiance to the king of England now owed primary allegiance to united America; yet, as the republic was the sudden birth of a revolution, the moderation of congress did not name it treason for the former subjects of the king to adhere to his government only; it was held that whoever chose to remain on the soil, by residence accepted protection and owed allegiance. This is the reason why, for twelve years, free inhabitants and citizens were in American state papers convertible terms, sometimes used one for the other, and sometimes for the sake of perspicuity redundantly joined together.
The king of England claimed as his subjects all persons born within his dominions: in like manner every one who first saw the light on the American soil was a natural born American citizen; but the power of naturalization, which, under the king, each colony had claimed to regulate by its own laws, remained under the confederacy with the separate states.
The king had extended protection to every one of his lieges in every one of the thirteen colonies; now that congress was the successor of the king in America, the right to equal protection was continued to every free inhabitant in whatever state he might sojourn or dwell.