A great many Americans, including a substantial number of my own readers, remain confused about the question of who is and who is not a “natural born” citizen, eligible to serve as president or vice president of the United States. They remain doggedly convinced that Barack Obama, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio are all eligible to serve merely because they were born on American soil. That simply is not the case. From the comments I have received in response to a recent column titled, “Amending the U.S. Constitution by Fiat,” it appears as if some either read much too quickly, or are a bit lacking in reading comprehension skills.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution tells us, “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.” It’s pretty straightforward. Nevertheless, it appears that when many read those words they are immediately struck by a strange form of dyslexia. What their brains register is a clause beginning, “No Person except a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President…”
The qualifications related to the age of the president and the number of years of U.S. residency are not at issue… they are quite straightforward and leave no room for misinterpretation. It is the status of the candidates’ citizenship that causes problems for many people… many of whom read the clause as if the legislatures of thirty-eight states had just approved an amendment dropping fourteen words from the middle of the presidential eligibility clause.
Clearly, the use of the word “or” early in the clause tells us that a natural born citizen is someone entirely different from a mere citizen. That was true on June 21, 1788, the day the Constitution was ratified, and it is still true today; the provision has not been amended. The term “citizen” encompasses a broad range of citizenship categories, including “native born,” “natural born,” and “naturalized.” The term “natural born” refers to a specific sub-set of citizens.
When the Founders met in Philadelphia in September 1787 to approve the final draft of the U.S. Constitution, a deep-seated animosity toward all things British colored every aspect of their daily lives. So is it even remotely conceivable that, just five years and eleven months after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the Founders would have produced a Constitution that would allow an individual holding dual US-British citizenship to serve as commander-in-chief of the Army and the Navy? It is a preposterous notion on its face. To believe that they would have done so requires a willing suspension of reason. Yet, that is precisely what those who use the terms “citizen” and “natural born citizen” interchangeably would have us believe.
To illustrate, let’s pretend that we are present at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on a cold winter’s day in January 1789. It is just seven months after the people of New Hampshire voted to ratify the U.S. Constitution, making it the official law of the land. The third session of the Continental Congress has just been called to decide who should be selected to lead our new nation as president of the United States. The Constitution required that the man they selected had to be either a natural born U.S. citizen… or… a citizen of the United States on the day that the Constitution was ratified, at least thirty-five years of age, and a resident of the U.S. for at least fourteen years.
If those who drafted Article II of the Constitution had insisted upon the same qualifications for president and vice president as they had for members of Congress and members of the federal judiciary, including members of the United States Supreme Court, Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution would have begun, “No Person except a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President…” In a nation of 4 million people, nearly every male citizen over age thirty-five would have qualified.
But if the Framers had produced a document that began, “No Person except a natural born Citizen shall be eligible to the Office of President…” they would have been presented with an insoluble problem because, in 1789, when the first president of the United States was elected, the only natural born citizens in the entire country… those born after the signing of the Declaration of Independence to U.S. citizen parents… were less than thirteen years old.
Fortunately, the authors of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution had foreseen the problem and, realizing that there could be no thirty-five-year-old natural born citizens during the earliest years of the republic, provided language making it possible for those born prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to parents who were not U.S. citizens, to serve as president or vice president.
It is not as if the country did not enjoy an excess of strong and capable leaders, men of major accomplishments. General George Washington, who led the continental Army during the Revolutionary War, was available. He was born in Wakefield, Virginia on February 22, 1732, forty-four years before the Declaration of Independence. Eighty-four-year-old Benjamin Franklin, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention and one of the most prominent men of the time was available. Franklin was born in Massachusetts in January 1705, and lived most of his life in the U.S. George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention who came to be known as the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” was available. Mason was born in Virginia on December 11, 1725, and lived his entire life in the U.S.
However, none of the three were “natural born” citizens because they were born to parents who were subjects of King George III, but who became U.S. citizens on July 4, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed. And since the Framers had foreseen the problem and had provided a “grandfather” clause to cover the situation, all three were made eligible under the Article II, Section 1 language reading, “or a citizen of the United States at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution…”
In fact, none of our first seven presidents… Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, or Jackson… were natural born citizens. Martin Van Buren, our eighth president, born to U.S. citizen parent at Kinderhook, New York, on December 5, 1782, six years after the Declaration of Independence, was our first “natural born” president. Every president since Van Buren, with the exception of Republican Chester A. Arthur, whose Irish father was a British subject at the time of his birth, and Democrat Barack Obama, whose Kenyan father was also a British subject at the time of his birth, has been a “natural born” U.S. citizen, as required by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.
Those who doggedly insist that all that is necessary to be a “natural born” citizen is to be born on American soil, regardless of their parents’ citizenship status, have an obligation to explain why the Framers were so careful to distinguish between the terms “citizen” and “natural born citizen” while setting out the qualifications to serve as president of the United States.
Why did the Framers make that distinction? Although it is impossible for parents to know beforehand how their children will ultimately develop, we can all agree that the most influential factor in a child’s upbringing is the parenting he/she receives as a child, and that the cultural, philosophical, political, and religious influence of a child’s parents fundamentally establishes the direction of his/her future conduct and intellectual development. It was that hope of parental and environmental influence on which the Framers pinned their hopes for a Christian nation comprised of Godly citizens who would be capable of maintaining a constitutional republic.
What the Founders feared most, and what caused them to limit access to the presidency only to the “natural born,” was the fear that a future president… during his formative years and during the years in which he was developing intellectually… would be exposed to an environment or a foreign political ideology that might cause him to reject the values and the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution. No president has been more emblematic of the worst fears of the Framers than the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania, Ave., Barack Hussein Obama. His father was a Muslim and a black African socialist; his mother was a left wing socialist flower-child; his stepfather was an Indonesian Muslim, subject to Sharia Law; his grandparents were dedicated socialists, perhaps communist sympathizers; his father figure during his teen years, Frank Marshall Davis, was a nationally known Communist Party writer and propagandist; the people who were instrumental in launching his political career in Chicago were radical Weather Underground terrorists who had participated in the killing of U.S. law enforcement officers; and his religious mentor during his post-college years in Chicago was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an America-hater of the first order. Nothing good can come from a lifetime of exposure to such people, so is it any wonder that he has dedicated himself to “fundamentally transforming” the government and the culture of the greatest nation on Earth?
Anyone wishing to take up the challenge outlined above might also wish to enlighten us by preparing a comprehensive list showing how Barack Obama’s governing principles mesh with governing principles contained in the U.S. Constitution. After eight years of Obama rule in the White House, it may help us to decide which poses the greater danger: a) a competent socialist who knows exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, or b) an incompetent socialist who hasn’t the foggiest notion of what he’s doing or how it might impact the greatest nation on Earth. Of the many unknowns surrounding Barack Obama, this may be the most profound.
Paul R. Hollrah is a retired government relations executive and a two-time member of the U.S. Electoral College. He currently lives and writes among the hills and lakes of northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country.