We find that way back at the beginning of our country, a man elected to the first Congress of the United States was challenged because of the citizenship of his British father.
William Smith, born in the British Colony of Carolina, was being in educated in Geneva Switzerland when he came of age during the Revolutionary war. He had been an orphan since age 11. His father was a subject of England and of the colony of Carolina and died a British subject. Smith ran for the US House of Representatives from the district of Charleston 5 years after his return to the new United States and won by a wide margin in a three-way race.
However, two days before the election, one of his opponents, Dr. David Ramsay, published a claim that Smith was ineligible to be a Congressman, not having been a citizen of the United States for the requisite 7 years. (This may have been in retaliation for rumors also circulated that Ramsay, originally from Pennsylvania, was a closet abolitionist.) A bitter exchange in newspaper letters and pamphlets ensued and Ramsay wrote an 8-page pamphlet titled: Manner of Acquiring the Character and Privileges of a Citizen of the United States intended to convince Congress unseat Smith.
Ironically, both Ramsay and Smith were delegates to the South Carolina constitutional convention which ratified the very US Constitution that contained the requirement.
The debate in the house over Smith’s eligibility is found in the Annals of Congress, Gales and Seaton’s History, First Congress, First Session, May 22, 1789. starting on page 412 and continuing through page 425. Here is a text version.
Doctor Ramsay in his petition to Congress argued that Smith could not have been a citizen 7 years because he had not been present the United States for 7 years since the United States existed (having been abroad for education during the Revolution). Ramsay asserted that one becomes a citizen by “birth or inheritance” and that Smith was denied both, having been born in Carolina when it was a British colony, and because his father died a British subject before the Revolution.
Smith countered with compelling evidence that upon his return to South Carolina, he was immediately considered a citizen without taking any oath of loyalty, and his previous residence as a minor in the Colony of Carolina counted towards the qualifications to vote and serve on the South Carolina privy council.
James Madison opened the debate observing that South Carolina law was not specific on the question of citizenship (and that if it were, there would be nothing to debate). Madison argued that the question should be decided based on South Carolina law to the extent it could be used and then upon general principles. One of these principles was: “It is an established maxim that birth is a criterion of allegiance. Birth, however, derives its force sometimes from place, and sometimes from parentage; but in general place is the most certain criterion; it is what applies in the United States; it will, therefore, be unnecessary to examine any other.” Madison then said: “I conceive that every person who owed this primary allegiance to the particular community in which he was born, retained his right of birth, as a member of a new community; that he was absolved from a secondary allegiance that he had owed to a British sovereign.”
Smith was affirmed by a vote of 36-1. [Note: there were two congressmen named William Smith at the time, one from South Carolina and one from Maryland.]
For more, see my article: 1787 document on citizenship.