Judges and legal scholars alike say the birthers misread Minor v. Happersett as containing the definition of “natural born citizen.” A legal brief submitted by an Obama attorney1 puts it succinctly:
contrary to the Plaintiff’s characterization, Minor did not exclusively define “‘natural-born” citizen’ as ‘all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens.'” Indeed, the court expressly left open the question of whether a child born to alien parents is a “natural born citizen” because it was not necessary to the disposition of the case.
The problem birthers have understanding this is that they think the court defined “natural born citizen” but left open the question of “citizenship.” This interpretation makes no sense in the context of the entire paragraph, but birthers are not big on understanding context when it goes against them.
So in order to assist birthers in comprehension, I present the following hypothetical court decision about “citizens at birth.” The text of my hypothetical will be identical to that in Minor v. Happersett, except that the phrase “natural-born citizen” is replaced by “citizen at birth .” Only two changes are made and these are noted with bold-faced type.
Constitution does not, in words, say who shall be citizens at birth. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that. At common-law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives, or citizens at birth, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners. Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case it is not necessary to solve these doubts.
I think any one would see that in this hypothetical text, the court is not saying whether the children of aliens are citizens at birth or not. So if the form of the argument does not define “citizens at birth” then how could the same argument with the words “natural-born citizen” say whether the children of aliens are “natural-born citizens” either. In fact, the dictionary definition of “natural born” means “Having a specified position or character by birth” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1971 ed.) so I really haven’t changed anything.
In fact, this definition is that given by Minor itself earlier in the text:
Additions might always be made to the citizenship of the United States in two ways: first, by birth, and second, by naturalization. This is apparent from the Constitution itself, for it provides that ‘no person except a natural-born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President,’ and that Congress shall have power ‘to establish a uniform rule of naturalization.’Thus new citizens may be born or they may be created by naturalization.
Therefore, a natural born citizen is any one born a citizen (i.e., not naturalized). This definition is 100% contextually consistent throughout the entire decision.
1Mark Herron, Stephen Rosenthal in Voeltz v. Obama