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The Constitution’s “natural-born” defect

All American citizens should be able to become president.

Actor and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger greets fans at a NASCAR event on June 28, 2015, in Sonoma, California.
Actor and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger greets fans at a NASCAR event on June 28, 2015, in Sonoma, California.
Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Previous essays in this series have addressed fundamental flaws in the Constitution: the ill-defined nature of presidential powers, the malapportionment of the Senate, the Electoral College. But I wish to draw my readers’ attention to a less central, but still important defect: the requirement, stated in Article II, Section 2, that presidents be “natural-born” citizens.

While it may appear to be a minor issue, this qualification relies on an ill-defined term that leaves some Americans in doubt regarding their eligibility to serve as president. It also bestows a mark of shame on millions of loyal Americans and deprives all of us of the potential service that would be given by otherwise able and qualified.

The “natural-born” clause was added to the Constitution during the closing weeks of the Convention, after the other qualifications had already been approved. There was no debate on this provision, forcing future scholars to guess at the delegates’ intent. The most common explanation has been that they feared that a foreign nation might send an agent to insinuate his way into American politics.

In July 1787, John Jay (then secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation) wrote to George Washington that only a “natural born” citizen should be allowed to become president, arguing that this requirement would provide a check on the ability of foreigners to influence the young republic.

There is no direct evidence that Jay’s letter influenced the writing of the Constitution, but scholars have tended to see it as the most likely means by which the “natural born” phrase entered the convention’s deliberation. (Alexander Hamilton also proposed a draft plan for the Constitution that included language declaring that only those born as citizens could serve as president but did not use the phrase “natural born.”)

Both Hamilton’s draft and the Constitution included language declaring that anyone who was an American citizen at the time of the Constitution’s adoption would automatically be eligible to serve as president, regardless of place of birth.

Fear of a foreign president

The delegates had some historical grounds for fearing that foreign powers might try to influence American politics. During the waning years of the Kingdom of Poland, which had an elective monarchy, outside powers (particularly Russia) intrigued in the selection of the king. Those same powers would soon gobble up Poland. There were various rumors circulated in the colonies that this or that European aristocrat might be plotting to gain power in the United States.

The term “natural born” had its roots in English common law. Those born on English soil were considered automatically English subjects, even if their parents were foreigners. But there was also centuries of precedent and law supporting the “natural born” status of those born outside England to English-subject parents. This doctrine was confirmed in the Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared the foreign-born children of US citizens to be “natural born” citizens. But subsequent laws altered this principle just enough to confuse.

“Birthright citizenship” was confirmed in a series of court cases in the nineteenth century and was explicitly stated in the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” (This overturned Dred Scott’s ruling that African Americans were not citizens).

In US v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the Supreme Court declared that Wong Kim Ark, the US-born son of Chinese-citizen parents, was a “natural born” citizen despite his parents’ inability to become citizens under the shameful law then in effect.

Naturally born eligible?

The “natural-born” clause has had a troubled history. Most notably, there have been several “gray areas” of eligibility. These have included:

  • US citizens’ children who were born abroad
  • US citizens born in unincorporated territories such as Puerto Rico
  • Native Americans born on reservations
  • Foreign-born children adopted by US parents

It is worth noting that two categories of US citizens have not faced serious dispute in terms of their eligibility to serve as president. Under common law, the 14th Amendment, and Wong Kim Ark, those born in the United States to noncitizen parents are considered natural-born citizens. And naturalized citizens have never been deemed natural-born.

Over the years, several (announced or potential) presidential candidates have been accused of not being natural-born:

The courts have never actually ruled on the eligibility of a presidential candidate based on citizenship status. Most of these challenges now appear silly or dishonest (although people at the time seemed to have taken the doubts about Romney’s “natural born” status seriously). But the possibility that the courts might rule on the eligibility of a presidential candidate to serve remains.

There is also the concern of a constitutionally ineligible or “gray area” person serving in the presidential line of succession: While the 12th Amendment specifically requires vice presidents to be constitutionally eligible to serve as president, there is no such requirement for members of the Cabinet. Indeed, several have either been naturalized or otherwise born abroad.

Let Americans choose

There are about 20 million naturalized citizens in the United States. Americans are denied the ability to judge qualifications of these fellow citizens to serve in the nation’s two highest offices. While the number of naturalized citizens who have served in other top political positions is not large, it is not trivial. They include Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The “natural born” clause is different from the other qualifications for office. After all, most people who are not yet 35 years old will someday turn 35. If someone has not resided in the United States for 14 years, they can always stay a little longer. But naturalized citizens cannot become “natural born,” no matter how they seek to prove their loyalty.

Indeed, citizenship status seems a most imperfect proxy for loyalty to country, given that hundreds of naturalized citizens have won the Medal of Honor, while spies Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, and Alger Hiss were all “natural born.” The president most suspected of ties to a foreign power is indisputably “natural born,” but he rose to power based on promotion of a conspiracy theory that claimed his predecessor was not. Why not let the American people judge?

How we can remedy this situation? Periodically, statutes have been proposed to rectify some of the “gray areas;” most often, to declare explicitly that the foreign-born children of US citizen parents are “natural born” citizens. But the clause’s most serious defect is the prohibition on naturalized citizens serving as president. That probably can only be fixed with a constitutional amendment.

These have also been periodically offered, most recently in 2004, during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s peak as a political phenomenon. It would be a tough path. Constitutional amendments are hard to pass, while public opinion appears hostile. But it would be worth it to erase the one legal blemish on the rights of naturalized citizens. (For more information, see a Congressional Research Service report, “Qualifications for President and the “Natural Born” Citizenship Eligibility Requirement.”)