Natural Born Presidents (Part 1)

[ Posted Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 – 17:18 UTC ]

[Program Note: Astonishingly, when I began writing what I considered to be a short Tuesday puff piece, it turned into a much longer column than originally planned. Because of length, then, we're going to cut it into two parts and run the conclusion tomorrow. Today, I got overwhelmed by the historical references, so all of the discussion of legalistic semantics will have to wait until tomorrow. Oh, and apologies in advance for the rather abrupt ending, as the column as a whole will continue tomorrow.]


That headline, obviously, is a play on the title of the movie Natural Born Killers, however I am going to leave it to the comments section for readers to point out the parallels between media whoredom, homicidal-maniacal sociopaths, and professional politicians (in other words, insert your own "psycho killer" joke here, folks). Instead, we're going to start this column in a much more staid manner, by quoting the United States Constitution, from Article II, Section 1:

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.

The problem, obviously, is that nobody's ever adequately legally defined what exactly "a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States" means. There have been no court challenges. It has become a political issue at times, but has never been adjudicated at all -- which means it is completely open to interpretation, for now. By anyone, really.

The news that Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, has now publicly released his birth certificate was what sparked this column, of course. More on him in a bit.

But first we've got to take a quick look at the history involved, because there's more of it than you might think. In the earliest times of our Constitution, questions were raised about who was and was not a citizen. This entered the federal courts after the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, as one newspaper editor was accused of not being a citizen. He had been born in New York, but his family had moved to Ireland before the Declaration of Independence was signed, and he later moved back to America. So was he a citizen of the newly-formed state of New York (and by extension, the United States) or not? (He was eventually ruled a citizen.) But because the country was so newly-formed, questions of this nature existed, although they were never truly addressed in presidential campaigns. And as the nation got older, this problem disappeared. But it is worth noting that Alexander Hamilton was ineligible for the presidency, since he was born in the British West Indies. This was probably a good thing, as he had argued for a "President-For-Life" concept at the Constitutional Convention.

Skipping forward to the election of 1880, Chester A. Arthur was the first president to have to defend his birthplace (he was a vice-presidential candidate in 1880 and took office when James Garfield was later assassinated). Well, Andrew Jackson was born in a shack very close to the border between two states (and he reportedly used this to boost his chances among the voters in both states), but his American-ness was never questioned. Not so with Arthur, who faced rumors that he had in fact been born in Ireland, and then when that didn't work, in Canada. Arthur's parents, a native-born (Vermont) American mother and a father born in Ireland, had moved around considerably between Canada and Vermont, but the truth was that Arthur had indeed been born in Vermont. But it's notable that the first "birther" rumors started in 1880.

In more modern times, there have been two cases of note. The first was George Romney, Mitt's dad. When he ran for the Republican nomination in 1968, questions were raised because he had been born in Mexico. George Romney's parents were both born in the territory of Utah (before it became a state), but George's grandparents had moved the family down to Mexico to continue practicing polygamy (banned when Utah achieved statehood). George's parents weren't polygamists, though, and he was born in Mexico in 1907. The family moved back to the United States when the Mexican Revolution broke out. When Romney ran in 1968, the question of his eligibility was indeed raised, but his campaign had hit the skids before the question was ever truly resolved. Most people agreed that he was eligible, but there was no formal court case or other decision made.

The last such case was John McCain, who was born on American territory, but not in the United States (he was born in the Panama Canal Zone). The question again arose, and the Senate pre-emptively voted for a resolution that stated that they thought McCain was indeed qualified. Not that it bore any real constitutional weight, but it was at least some sort of official notice that he was probably qualified. Democrats didn't make it an issue, and so it never reached the courts or anything.

On the Republican side, however, the "birther" movement just kept growing. Barack Obama (they claimed) was ineligible for the U.S. presidency because he was born in Kenya! Obama just missed, in fact, being born in a U.S. territory, as Hawai'i had only been a state for less than two years when he was born. But the key question that the birthers (and the media who went along for the ride) failed to ever address was: would it even have mattered? Obama would have been born (no matter where it happened) to a mother who was an American citizen, after all.

Just like Ted Cruz. Cruz was born in a foreign country (Canada) to an American citizen mother and a non-citizen father. Which (if the birthers had been correct) would have also accurately described Barack Obama's birth (substituting "Kenya" for "Canada"). This is an important point, because I have yet to hear a Republican (other than looney-birds like Donald Trump) even suggest that Ted Cruz is ineligible to run for president, using the same "logic" the birthers have always used. How times change, eh?

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “Natural Born Presidents (Part 1)”

  1. [1] 
    Pastafarian Dan wrote:

    Ted Cruz is eligible to run for President, but he is completely unqualified to serve as President (OK, he meets the legal qualifications spelled out in the Constitution, but really, does anyone think this guy is intellectually or emotionally qualified to be POTUS?).

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    (in other words, insert your own "psycho killer" joke here, folks).

    I can't think of a one.... YET :D

    (OK, he meets the legal qualifications spelled out in the Constitution, but really, does anyone think this guy is intellectually or emotionally qualified to be POTUS?).

    He is as qualified as Barack Obama was at the time of his election.

    I mean, seriously. Look at it.

    What qualified Obama for POTUS??


    Absolutely nothing..

  3. [3] 
    michty6 wrote:

    The irony that the head of the nut-job division of Republicans - who were OBSESSED with Obama's birth certificate - wasn't actually born in America is delicious. I guess there go his chances of being President...

    (That last sentence is a joke, he obviously has no chance as America isn't insane enough (yet) and they probably can't rig the election enough to get him elected (although they will damn well try))

  4. [4] 
    michty6 wrote:

    Also you should drop the 'natural born' clause from the constitution. Like large parts of your constitution it has no relevance to modern day and was invented to stop European aristocrats buying their way to the Presidency.

    But hey, you love to keep completely useless parts of your constitution that are completely irrelevant to the modern world and don't exist in any modern Western country today (cough guns cough). So why change now...

  5. [5] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Qu'est que c'est?

    Points for a Psycho Killer joke?


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    don't exist in any modern Western country today (cough guns cough).

    Tell that to New York... Tell that to Chicago... :D


  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Pastafarian Dan -

    Ah, but that's for the voters to decide. Personally, I think Ted Cruz would make a wonderful Republican candidate for president. Mostly because we'd then be guaranteed four more years of Dem occupancy in the Oval Office.

    You know who is really bummed out at the rise of Ted Cruz? Rick Perry. He really wanted to take a second crack at a run, but I think he knows that having more than one Texas looneybird on the ticket would just lead to a split Texas-looneybird vote.

    To coin a phrase, "oops."


    michty6 -

    Ah, but then America may very well have had to endure President Schwarzenegger. You may laugh, but I'm of the firm belief he could have won. When he announced for the governor's race out here, I immediately started saying to all who would listen "He's going to win." Nobody believed me. Even when I said "He's going to be re-elected." Big joke. Except it did happen -- in one of the bluest states around.

    So maybe there still is a reason to retain this phrase.


    David -

    Fa fa fa fa, fa fa fa fa fa!
    Run run run, run run run away...



  8. [8] 
    akadjian wrote:

    You may laugh, but I'm of the firm belief he could have won.

    For President? Easily.

    Chris Christie is a pale version of him and he's currently the guy to beat.

    It is a little more surprising he won in California but I always thought it spoke more to who he was running against.

    That said, I still think the 'natural born' clause is silly.


    p.s. Rick Perry ... yeah, that guy is out there

  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:

    BTW, it's interesting that both Schwarzenegger and Stallone are pro gun control. It's one of the reasons I think Arnold would have won - on social issues he's much more liberal than most Republicans. His big issue for me was his economic policies.

  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    David -

    Arnie won the first time on sheer name recognition alone.

    But the second time, he won in a fair election against one Democrat.

    I think it's the "movie/action hero" thing, personally. Ever since Reagan, I haven't been surprised by this sort of thing, myself.

    I think Democrats could use this star power thing as well, but for some reason not many Dem stars actually run -- they hint at it and talk about it a lot, but then don't actually do it.


  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Ah, but then America may very well have had to endure President Schwarzenegger. You may laugh, but I'm of the firm belief he could have won.

    Are you saying that Governor Schwarzenegger had no redeeming qualities or remarkable accomplishments.

    I may be a crazy Canuck but, I suspect that a Schwarzenegger presidency might have been an interesting and productive one. His administration would definitely have included knowledgeable and competent people from both sides of the aisle.

    After all, I think he learned some valuable lessons about governing during his tenure as Governor of the great state of California.

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