Main Menu

Commenting on “natural born citizen”

I left the following comment at John Woodman’s blog just now. He has an “edit comments” feature like here, and I edited, and edited and edited, so that a short comment developed into a long one. I liked how it turned out, so I’ve cut and pasted myself.


It is my personal view after a lot of reading of old writing that the citizens in 1787 were not of one mind concerning the term “natural born citizen.” I think that for most of the Framers (some of whom were lawyers trained in England), it was a term of art derived from the English “natural born subject.” That group may have understood it to refer only to those physically born in the country, following Calvin’s Case, or they may have understood it to include those long made subjects in England who were born abroad to British parents. Others, I think, less formally considered “native” and “natural born” the same, but I think the broad mass of citizens held the dictionary definition that “natural born” meant “having the nature at birth” or “born a citizen.”

Also I do not think that notions of who was a citizen were necessarily uniform. For example new-elected Congressman William Smith of Charleston in 1789 cited Vattel in saying that the citizenship of the child follows the father, while in the same context James Madison said that place of birth is what mattered in the United States. (Ironically they were on the same side in the debate but derived their result through a different argument.)

We may focus on what the Framers meant, but that’s really not valid since the Framers didn’t enact the Constitution. Whether Franklin or Washington read Vattel is largely irrelevant. If any original intent can be claimed, it is the intent of those delegates to the state ratifying conventions: they are the ones who enacted the Constitution. This is why I have difficulty with the “term of art” definition because that presumes the Constitution was debated in the streets and in the newspapers only by lawyers and ultimately ratified by lawyers. If any original intent is to be invoked, the definition must come from the common usage of the people. This is borne out by the absence of anything in the historical record where anyone tried to explain the concept to the people.

If you have any comments on this, please visit Mr. Woodman’s site to leave them.

Comments are closed.