Qualifications for President and the “Natural Born” Citizenship Eligibility Requirement
November 14, 2011
The Constitution sets out three eligibility requirements to be President: one must be 35 years of age, a resident “within the United States” for 14 years, and a “natural born Citizen.” There is no Supreme Court case which has ruled specifically on the presidential eligibility requirements (although several cases have addressed the term “natural born” citizen), and this clause has been the subject of several legal and historical treatises over the years, as well as more recent litigation.
The term “natural born” citizen is not defined in the Constitution, and there is no discussion of the term evident in the notes of the Federal Convention of 1787. The use of the phrase in the Constitution may have derived from a suggestion in a letter from John Jay to George Washington during the Convention expressing concern about having the office of Commander-in-Chief “devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen,” as there were fears at that time about wealthy
European aristocracy or royalty coming to America, gaining citizenship, and then buying and scheming their way to the presidency without long-standing loyalty to the nation. At the time of independence, and at the time of the framing of the Constitution, the term “natural born” with respect to citizenship was in use for many years in the American colonies, and then in the states, from British common law and legal usage. Under the common law principle of jus soli (law of the soil), persons born on English soil, even of two alien parents, were “natural born” subjects and, as noted by the Supreme Court, this “same rule” was applicable in the American colonies and “in the United States afterwards, and continued to prevail under the Constitution ...” with respect to citizens. In textual constitutional analysis, it is understood that terms used but not defined in the document must, as explained by the Supreme Court, “be read in light of British common law” since the Constitution is “framed in the language of the English common law.”
In addition to historical and textual analysis, numerous holdings and references in federal (and state) cases for more than a century have clearly indicated that those born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction (i.e., not born to foreign diplomats or occupying military forces), even to alien parents, are citizens “at birth” or “by birth,” and are “natural born,” as opposed to “naturalized,” U.S. citizens. There is no provision in the Constitution and no controlling American case law to support a contention that the citizenship of one’s parents governs the eligibility of a native born U.S. citizen to be President.
Although the eligibility of native born U.S. citizens has been settled law for more than a century, there have been legitimate legal issues raised concerning those born outside of the country to U.S. citizens. From historical material and case law, it appears that the common understanding of the term “natural born” in England and in the American colonies in the 1700s may have included both the strict common law meaning as born in the territory (jus soli), as well as the statutory laws adopted in England since at least 1350, which included children born abroad to British fathers (jus sanguinis, the law of descent).
The weight of legal and historical authority indicates that the term “natural born” citizen would mean a person who is entitled to U.S. citizenship “by birth” or “at birth,” either by being born “in” the United States and under its jurisdiction, even those born to alien parents; by being born abroad to U.S. citizen-parents; or by being born in other situations meeting legal requirements for U.S. citizenship “at birth.” Such term, however, would not include a person who was not a U.S.citizen by birth or at birth, and who was thus born an “alien” required to go through the legal process of “naturalization” to become a U.S. citizen.