I was reading Michael C. Voeltz’s1 “Contest of Election” filed in Florida (I don’t know how old it is). It contains an interesting paragraph:
Alexander Hamilton, a founder of the country, present during the framing of the U.S. Constitution, would find Barack Obama Senior, Barack H. Obama’s father, as an “improper ancestor.” An “improper ancestor” presents a clear and present danger of foreign intrigue and influence to the Commander in chief. There is no way that the son of a Communist Kenyan, British subject would be considered a “creature of our own” by the founders.
The actual quotation from Federalist 68 doesn’t use the word “ancestor” but rather “an ascendant” which Voeltz takes, based on an 1813 Webster’s Dictionary, to mean “ancestor.” Here’s a longer citation from Federalist 68 with the portion Voeltz cites in bold (final ellipses added).
Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, […] but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. …
There’s quite a bit here for discussion and I’ll take it one part at a time, first checking the dictionary.
The first edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was in 1828. His Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1806. I couldn’t find either available online, or even a reference to an 1813 edition. I did find the 1848 edition with this:
While the usage meaning “ancestor” appears, Voeltz ‘s reading is patently absurd in context. The phrase “an ascendant” clearly refers to a President and a President is not his own ancestor. If it were a foreign influence whose progeny became President, that would be a “descendant” not an “ascendant.”
““Superiority” seems the far more likely meaning. Examine the context, from Hamilton’s Federalist 11, where the sense of “ancestor” is impossible (emphasis mine):
There are other points of view, in which this subject might be placed, of a striking and animating kind. But they would lead us too far into the regions of futurity, and would involve topics not proper for a Newspaper discussion. I shall briefly observe, that our situation invites, and our interests prompt us, to aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs. The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests. Unhappily for the other three, Europe by her arms and by her negociations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America have successively felt her domination. The superiority, she has long maintained, has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority; and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America–that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed a while in our atmosphere. Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness! Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the controul of all trans-atlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!
Here is another, even better, example from Hamilton in a letter to the New York Journal:
There are seasons in every country when noise and impudence pass current for worth; and in popular commotions especially, the clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism. You prudently took advantage of the commencement of the contest, to ingratiate yourself in the favor of the people, and gain an ascendant in their confidence by appearing a zealous assertor of their rights.
Voeltz ‘s substitution of “ancestor” is simply not supported by the context.
Mr. Voeltz leaves us dangling with an incomplete paragraph, he ending it at: “But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention.” One might be tempted to think that the “natural born citizenship” clause is that provident and judicial solution to foreign influence, but it is not. The conclusion of that paragraph describes the Electoral College, “They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment.”
The phrase “natural born citizen” does not even appear (perhaps because Hamilton himself was not born in the United States and not a “natural born citizen”). Earlier in Federalist 68 Hamilton lays the foundation for placing his trust in the Electoral College:
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.
Subsequent amendments to the Constitution have weakened the role of the Electoral College, but the original principle remains – to make the election of the President a geographically diffuse process, making it difficult for a small group of well-connected power brokers that could be corrupted by foreign bribes to influence the selection.
1Mr. Voeltz is currently represented by Florida attorney Larry Klayman in Voeltz v. Obama.