No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
Some Internet writers say that the exception to the natural born citizen rule ( “or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution“) was placed there specially for folks like George Washington who were born British Subjects before there was any United States. Others say that the clause was for the benefit of Alexander Hamilton who was not born on the American continent.
As I wrote in my article: George Washington, first in war, first in peace, and first presidential usurper, George Washington came from a state that had not ratified the Constitution at the time the Constitution went into effect, and therefore was not a “Citizen of the United States” at the time of the Adoption of the Constitution. That story was joke because the United States existed under the Articles of Confederation before there was a Constitution, and many would contend that the United States existed since the 13 American colonies signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
However, we are instructed by the controversy over seating William Smith (as reported here in The eligibility debate in Congress) that it was the prevailing view in Congress the citizenship worked another way. The view, put forward by James Madison and almost unanimously affirmed by Congress, was that place of birth is what matters. Madison wrote:
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.
George Washington, born in Virginia, was no foreigner. Even though he was born a British Subject as was his father before him, nonetheless Washington was also born a Virginian. When Virginia became part of the United States, all of its natural born subjects became natural born citizens of the United States as well, and the treaty of peace with Britain absolved them of any claims to allegiance by Britain. Allegiance is primarily to the society into which is born and where one is raised.
John Jay wrote to George Washington: “Permit me to hint whether it would not be wise and seasonable to provide a strong check to the admission of foreigners into the administration of our national government ; and to declare expressly that the command in chief of the American army shall not be given to, nor devolve on any but a natural born citizen.” Do you think that Jay intended to exclude George Washington? Thomas Jefferson wrote:
The treaty of peace acknowleges we are no longer to owe allegiance to the king of G.B. It acknowleges us no longer as Natural subjects then. It makes us citizens of independent states;
Citizenship is membership in a political society…