THE NATURAL BORN CITIZEN – WHAT THE FOUNDERS INTENDED
by Paul R. Hollrah, ©2016
(Oct. 11, 2016) — As the nation enters the final days of the 2016 presidential election, Democrats have once again resurrected the “birther” issue, charging that Republican candidate Donald Trump is somehow unfit to serve because he once raised questions about Barack Obama’s presidential eligibility. That being the case, it behooves us to unveil the truth in terms that all can understand.
What few Americans seem to realize is that the entire issue revolving around the question of Obama’s place of birth… the United States or Kenya… is a “false flag” issue. If we accept that Stanley Ann Dunham, of Honolulu, Hawaii, an American citizen, was indeed Obama’s mother, then his place of birth is immaterial; he is a US citizen. However, what is an absolutely essential factor in Obama’s eligibility is the question of his status or non-status as a “natural born” citizen. Were both of his parents US citizens, or were they of mixed or foreign nationality? Avoiding speculation, we will analyze the issue using only what Obama has told us about his origins.
First, we have the absolute and unequivocal requirements of Article II. Section 1, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution, which state that, “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.”
We know that Obama was not alive at the time the Constitution was adopted on June 21, 1788; we know that he was at least thirty-five years of age when he took office in January 2009; and we have sufficient supporting evidence that he has been a US resident for at least fourteen years. But is he a “natural born” US citizen? What is a “natural born” citizen, and why did the Framers limit access to the presidency only to “natural born” citizens?
In drafting the U.S. Constitution, the Founders relied heavily on the work of Swiss philosopher Emerich de Vattel. In his 1758 legal treatise, The Law of Nations, Book One, Chapter 19, in a section titled “Of the citizens and natives,” Vattel defined the term “natural born Citizen” as follows: “… The natives, or natural-born citizens, are those born in the country, of parents who are citizens… The country of the fathers is therefore that of the children; and these become true citizens merely by their tacit consent. I say that, in order to be of the country, it is necessary that a person be born of a father who is a citizen; for, if he is born there of a foreigner, it will be only the place of his birth, and not his country (emphasis added).”
When the Founders met in Philadelphia in September 1787 to approve the final draft of the US Constitution, the physical scars of the War of Independence from Great Britain were still visible all around them, and 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 General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the Founders would have presented to the states for ratification a Constitution that would allow an individual with divided loyalties – e.g., an individual with dual US-British citizenship – to serve as president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the Army and the Navy? It is a thoroughly preposterous notion on its face. To believe that they would have done so requires a willing suspension of reason.
In a July 25, 1787, letter from John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, addressed to George Washington, president of the Constitutional Convention, Jay expressed his concern over the prospect of allowing an individual with any form of potential foreign allegiance to serve as president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the Army and the Navy. He wrote: “Permit me to hint whether it would 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 commander-in-chief of the American army shall not be given to, nor devolve on, any but a natural born citizen.”
Further expressing the prevailing concerns of the time, and as an expression of the fear of foreign influence that motivated and inspired the Founders, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, “These most deadly adversaries of republican government (cabal, intrigue, etc.) might actually have expected to make their approach from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
The Founders rightly understood 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. Accordingly, what the Founders feared most, and what caused them to limit access to the presidency only to the “natural born,” was the concern that a future president… during his formative years and during the years in which he was developing intellectually… would be exposed to an environment in which he would come to reject the values and the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution. In other words, what Hamilton and Jay were saying is that no person who had been exposed to an environment in which they could have been unduly influenced by foreign parentage, owing allegiance to a foreign government or ideology, should ever serve as president or vice president of the United States.
Taking into account those concerns, it is easy to understand why the Founders produced a draft Constitution under which only two (2) jobs in the entire United States of America… public sector and private sector combined… require the incumbents to be “natural born” citizens. Those two jobs are president and vice president of the United States.
What is likely, even probable, is that the Founders drafted Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution to reflect Vattel’s definition of a “natural born” citizen. That is precisely why they include in Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 the often overlooked and little understood words, “or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution…”
At the time the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, there were three types of citizens:
- The former British subjects who, having renounced all foreign allegiances, and having pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, became citizens of a sovereign American nation on July 4, 1776,
- The post-Declaration children of those who became U.S. citizens on July 4, 1776, the first “natural born” citizens of the United States, and all less than twelve years old at the time the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, and
- A class of citizens comprising those who were naturalized after July 4, 1776, having taken a loyalty oath and having renounced all foreign allegiances.
To fully understand the significance of the phrase, “or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution…,” it is necessary to recognize three significant dates:
- July 4, 1776, the date on which the Declaration of Independence was signed, making all citizens of the thirteen colonies citizens of the United States,
- June 21, 1788, the date on which ratification by the State of New Hampshire made the Constitution the official law of the land, and,
- July 4, 1811, the date after which the first “natural born” citizens… those born to U.S. citizens after July 4, 1776… became 35 years of age.
The Constitution requires that, in addition to being a “natural born” citizen and a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years, those who would seek the presidency must be at least thirty-five years of age. However, the only “natural born” citizens available on June 21, 1788, the day the Constitution was ratified, were children under twelve years of age. To solve that problem, the Framers added a “grandfather clause,” making it possible for newly-minted US citizens… all US residents for at least fourteen years and all at least thirty-five years of age, but none of them “natural born” because they were born to parents who were British subjects prior to July 4, 1776… to lead the nation. This was necessary until such time as a body of individuals, born to US citizen parents after the Declaration of Independence, reached age thirty-five.
For example, our first seven presidents… George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson… were all “citizens” because they were born in what later became the United States of America, but they were not “natural born” citizens because their parents were all British subjects at the time they were born. Martin Van Buren, our eighth president, was born at Kinderhook, New York on December 5, 1782, six years and five months after the Declaration of Independence. Unlike his seven predecessors, he was not just a “citizen;” he was a “natural born” citizen… the first president, at least thirty-five years of age, who was born to US citizen parents after July 4, 1776.
Every U.S. 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, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution.
A great many well-meaning, but ill-informed, Americans refuse to accept the fact that, while the Founders intended that only “natural born” citizens should ever serve as president, there were no 35-year-old “natural born” citizens available during the first 35 years of our nation’s history. Accordingly, it became necessary to provide an exemption of limited duration covering those citizens born prior to July 4, 1776. All were “grandfathered” and made eligible under the phrase, “or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution…”
Were that not the case, and had the Framers intended that the terms “citizen” and “natural born Citizen” be considered synonymous, they would simply have written, “No Person except a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President…”
In Part II of this series we will discuss the term “natural born Citizen” as understood by US political leaders during the 19th and 20th centuries.
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.