Recently on Quora, I asked: “Is it time to get rid of the “Natural Born Citizen Clause” to be president? it got some heavily emotional responses. Some were sane but a few were obviously Nationalists who worship the Founding Fathers and believe them inerrant.
While I’m not formally lobbying for one position or another, I do have an opinion, which I will share at the end if it isn’t obvious by then. My intent was that we should take a look at this clause and consider if it is still relevant, as the Founding Fathers believed it was then. Remember, the forefathers gave us a means to change things if we decided we should. Amendments babe! We just have to have enough agreement and the political will to get it done. Might be easier to put a person on Mars but hey, the option is there.
Let’s review. In a nutshell, the Constitution’s Natural Born Citizenship Clause states 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. — Source
So what is a Natural Born Citizen? The U.S. Constitution is very specific when it needs to be and is otherwise very vague when it wants to be. It uses but does not define the phrase natural born Citizen, and various opinions have been offered over time regarding its precise meaning. In July 1787, John Jay (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.“
For anyone who missed this in high school history class, there was concern that a wealthy foreigner (specifically European aristocracy) might immigrate and buy his way into power. This was apparently a common thing back then. I’m guessing the 3rd or 4th sibling who had no realistic chance of inheriting the throne of a country they really wanted might have tried something like this. And let’s be clear, it would have to be a guy because women were not even allowed to vote in America back then, let alone own property or run for office. Again that pesky let’s change the constitution to allow for modern needs and/or undoing errors our inerrant Founders ignored.
As the law stands right now, someone who was born in the U.S. but taken back to their parents’ native country as an infant, and who spends most of their formative years overseas before returning, would be considered eligible to serve as president, while someone who was born outside the U.S., came here as an infant, and grew up not really knowing any other culture but America, would not.
It just strikes me as illogical that someone born here, but spends 25 years in Australia, Europe, Africa, etc is better qualified to be President than someone who is born in say, Iceland, but then comes here as a 2-year-old and spends the next 33 years on American Soil? This qualification relies on an hazy-defined term that renders some Americans in doubt about their eligibility to serve as president. It also deprives Americans of the potential service that would be given by otherwise able and qualified persons (we can find examples on both sides of the political aisle.)
Citizenship status seems a weak litmus test for loyalty to country, given that some of the greatest traitors in American history have been natural-born citizens (Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, and Alger Hiss come to mind.) Not to mention implying a caste system where Natural Born Citizen is more important than American Citizen. The Natural Born Citizen requirement was a way of preventing foreign influence and ensuring the candidate has loyalty to the US first, and not another country. And back in the 18th and 19th centuries, this might have been a problem. But in today’s modern world, this concept seems a bit antiquated. We are a much more mobile, global society. Let’s nix the Natural Born Citizen requirement for being President of the United States. We can shore up the requirements other ways to prevent any insincere candidates from running for office.
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