Presidential Oddities: “Natural born Citizen” what does it mean exactly?

April 3, 2015

seal-presidential-colorThe Constitution of the United States (Article II, Section I) outlines minimum qualifications a person must meet to be eligible to serve as the President of the United States. The Constitution states that to be President a person must,

  • Be at least thirty-five years of age
  • Have at least fourteen years of residency in the United States
  • Be a natural born citizen.

Over the years the first two have never been an issue. The last condition of being a “natural born Citizen” has several times been contentious.

It’s all in how the clause in the Constitution is interpreted. Some think it means born within the borders of the United States. The Constitution did not define “natural born Citizen”, and the Supreme Court has never ruled on its meaning. The vagueness has been used for political purposes by many opponents of the candidates.

Taken literally it would mean no one born outside the borders of the United States could be president. Scholars of the Constitution do not believe this to be the true intent. Most believe natural born extends to anyone born to U.S. citizens no matter where the birth occurred. To clarify the clause once and for all recommendations have been made to amend the Constitution.

In the race to the 2016 Presidential Election another example has arisen. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas who recently announced his candidacy was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He was born to an American mother and a Cuban father. Under U.S. law he automatically became an American citizen at birth because one of his parents was a citizen. Is this considered natural born? Therein is the ambiguity of the Constitutional clause. Without an amendment or a Supreme Court ruling the parameters of the clause remain uncertain.

Here are some examples of history,

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California was born in Austria to Austrian parents. Because neither parent was an American citizen he was not an American citizen at birth. He attained citizenship by naturalization after he immigrated. It is clear he would not be eligible to be president unless the Constitution was amended to enable it.

Senator John McCain of Arizona was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Both his parents were American citizens and also he was born on an American military base. Some questioned his qualifications when he ran in 2008, but in the end most agreed he met the natural born criteria. In fact in April 2008 the Senate passed a resolution declaring that McCain was a natural born citizen under the Constitution. This may have reassured many, but it had no real legal significance.
McCain Ineligible to be President?

Back in 1964 the natural born issue was raised against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. He was born in Arizona prior to statehood. Arizona at the time was only a territory. Therefore was he natural born? Once again this was never resolved. Had he become president it may have been challenged in the courts.

Once again in 1968 legal actions threatened candidate George Romney, former Governor of Michigan, who was born in Mexico. Although he was born to parents who were both American citizens many arguments against his eligibility were made. His candidacy was unsuccessful and again no court ruling resulted.

During the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Elections so-called “birthers” challenged Barack Obama’s natural born credentials. In his case he was born in Hawaii to an American mother and a Kenyan born father. They even argued that he wasn’t born in Hawaii an American state since 1960, but actually in Kenya. The State of Hawaii produced a copy of his birth certificate.

President Chester Arthur ascended to the Presidency on the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. His opponents dogged him with the issue of not being a natural born citizen.

He was born October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont according the family bible held by the U.S. National Archives, but no birth certificate exists. His father was Irish born and emigrated to Lower Canada, present day Quebec in 1818. Arthur’s mother was born in Vermont. They were married in Lower Canada in 1821. They moved to Fairfield in 1828 where Chester was born. The family’s many moves led to accusations Chester Arthur was not a natural born citizen of the United States. Once again these claims were never ruled on or proven.
Illegal President? Chester Alan Arthur.

To clarify and rid American politics of these arguments Sarah Helene Duggin from the Catholic University of America, who is an acknowledged expert on this topic believes the Constitution should be amended. The issue is not going away and is likely to arise again in the future.

What if someone is elected or becomes President and someone files in court to have them removed from office because of the natural born clause. If this filing is ruled legitimate and proceeds then what happens until the ruling is made? Does the person still continue be president or are they removed until a ruling is made? What if the ruling goes against the sitting president? As you can see confusion and potential gridlock may result. This is the reason most Constitutional scholars such as Ms Duggin believe the solution is an amendment.

Inauguration 2009 – Commentary

January 21, 2009
1789, Washington Inauguration

As a Canadian watching the inaugural celebrations held in Washington and throughout the United States yesterday, one thing struck me.

Peaceful transistion of power. How many other countries in the world see the incumbant head-of-state quietly and voluntarily leave the highest post in the country, to be succeeded immediately by the next head-of-state.

I believe the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted the inauguration to be a public demonstration of the effectiveness of the Constitution. A clear message to the American people and the rest of the world that democracy is alive and well.

1981, Reagan

1981, 1st Reagan Inauguration

To the American people, you have succeeded. To the outgoing president, your service to your country is appreciated. To the incoming president, may you succeed in addressing the problems facing you.

This Canadian appreciates the demonstration of democracy by my neighbor and best friend, America.

Presidential Inaugural Firsts

January 4, 2009
Reagan Inauguration 1981

Reagan Inauguration 1981

With the inguration of a new president coming up on January 20th, I did some research and found some interesting “firsts” for this event.

January 20th is the constitutional date specified for the end of a president’s four year term. The swearing in of a president is a symbol of the smooth transistion of power in the case of a new president. In the instance of a re-elected president, it is the end of one elected term and the beginning of a new one. The Constitution also specifies the “oath-of-office” is to be taken  by the president-elect.

 Here are some of the tidbits I found,

1837 – Martin Van Buren was the first president to call on his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, at the White House, and ride with him to the Capitol for the swearing in. He was also the first president who was born an American citizen.

1841 – William Henry Harrison was the first president to arrive in Washington by train for the inauguration.

1841 – John Tyler was the first president who was sworn in after the death of a president. He was never elected to his own term so didn’t have an inauguration of his own.

1845 – James Polk’s inaugural address was the first one relayed by telegraph (to Baltimore).

1853 – Franklin Pierce was the first, and so far only, president to “affirm” rather than swear his loyalty to the Constitution.

1865 – Black soldiers marched in the inaugural parade for the first time.

1897 – William McKinley’s first inauguration was filmed by motion-picture cameramen.

1921 – Presidential party rode in automobiles to the inauguration for Warren Harding’s inauguration.

1925 – Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural address was broadcast on radio.

1929 – Herbert Hoover’s address was recorded for “talking pictures”.

1949 – Harry Truman’s inauguration was first to appear on television.

1961 – John F. Kennedy’s inauguration appeared on color TV.

1977 – Jimmy Carter walked back to the White House with his family after taking his oath at the Capitol.

2009 – Will this be the first broadcast live on the internet? Most likely.

Strange Bedfellows: Early Election Quirk – Part 2

May 29, 2008

One reader has asked about the results of the faulted selection method for Vice President prior to Amendment XII taking effect for the 1804 election. Before Amendment XII the loser of the presidential election became Vice President. Sometimes this created strange bedfellows as my previous post discussed.

(Left: Aaron Burr, one of the most contentious Vice Presidents – ever.)

Here are the results of the four presidential elections occurring before the amendment (party affiliation in brackets):

President George Washington (none), Vice President John Adams (none)
Not contentious because after all how could Adams argue that Washington, the Father of His Country, should not be first president of his country.

President George Washington (none), Vice President John Adams (Federalist)
Adams felt presidents should only serve one term and his also disagreed with Washington’s handling of many issues. A rift developed, but Washington was stuck with Adams.

President John Adams (Federalist), Vice President Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) Jefferson held almost complete opposite views on issues of the day. Jefferson stayed away and was hardly seen around Washington during Adam’s term.

President Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican), Vice President Aaron Burr (Democratic-Republican)
In this election both Jefferson and Burr wanted to be president and even though they were of the same political party, they held widely differing views. They ended up tied with 73 Electoral Votes each. This assured both men of at least one of the highest offices of the land. In accordance with the Constitution, the House of Representatives decided the result for the first time in history. After 36 ballots, the House elected Jefferson president and Burr vice president. Burr refused to remove himself from consideration even after pleading from his and Jefferson’s party. This created animosity between Jefferson and Burr. In addition Alexander Hamilton of the Federalist-controlled House advocated Jefferson as the lesser political evil than Burr. Later while Burr was vice president he killed Hamilton in a duel. This destroyed Burr’s career because Hamilton was very popular. Jefferson did not retain Burr as his vice presidential running mate in the election of 1804, the first one held under the new rules.

Having the loser become vice president and remain as part of the winner’s administration created many problems. Chief of these was the fact the vice president’s primary duty was to preside over the Senate and cast the deciding vote on legislation in the event of a tie. This came back to haunt the presidents several times.

Strange Bedfellows: Early Election Quirk

May 27, 2008

In the early years of the United States voters balloted for president only, not vice president. Electors were selected to vote in the Electoral College for president. No distinct Electors were to vote for a vice president.

Here was the quirk. The Electors met after the general election in the state capitols and cast their votes for president. The candidate with the most votes became President of the United States, the candidate with the second largest number of votes became Vice President of the United States. If there was a tie, the Senate voted on who would become vice president. A tie for president was decided by the House of Representatives.

So in fact the president was stuck with his opponent in the general election as the vice president in his administration. This was changed with Amendment XII of the Constitution passed by Congress December 9, 1803 and ratified June 15, 1804. Beginning with the election of 1804, there was distinct voting for president and vice president. Each part fielded a presidential and vice presidential candidate.

To illustrate how ridiculous the original concept was let’s look at how some historical election results would have played out if the amendment was never passed. In the cases of presidents who died in office (dio), note the person who would have become president.

President Abraham Lincoln (dio), Vice President George McClelland (a general Lincoln had fired)
1880 President James Garfield (dio), Vice President Winfield Hancock (no Chester Arthur)
President William McKinley (dio), Vice President William Jennings Bryan (no Teddy Roosevelt)
President Warren Harding (dio), Vice President James Cox (no Calvin Coolidge)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (dio), Vice President Thomas Dewey (no Harry Truman
President John F. Kennedy (dio), Vice President Richard Nixon (no Lyndon Johnson
President George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore
President George W. Bush, Vice President John Kerry

You get the idea. History would be very different if the Constitution had not been amended to correct this quirk. The consitutional amendment took the vice president from being a political thorn in the president’s side, to a silent partner (very silent in most cases). Certainly vice presidents could still be embarassing to the administration as we will see in future posts.

The Vice Presidency: Insignificant?

May 23, 2008

In this presidential election year one position becoming crucial to the candidates, is their choice of running mate. For those uninitiated a “running mate” is the party’s nominee for the office of Vice President of the United States. This individual is usually selected by the nominee for President, and then voted on at the convention by the party. This individual, if elected, succeeds to the presidency in the event of removal from office, death, or resignation of the sitting president. Historically the position has been considered unimportant.

No one wants the worst case scenario of losing the elected president, but that possibility is very real based on history. In my opinion much more attention needs to be placed on the selection of the vice presidential candidates. After all it is possible this individual may become president. The vice president is the nation’s insurance policy.

Senator John McCann is the presumptive Republican nominee for president this year. If elected he would be the oldest person to be inaugurated at age 72 years. Today he released his medical records which show he is healthy and his cancer of a few years ago has not reappeared. McCann is extremely qualified to be president based on his years of experience in politics and in the military. Conservatives say he is not conservative enough, Democrats say he is too conservative. He is presently conducting a search for his running mate. He needs to select a much younger person, but one with experience. The candidate will likely be from a large northern state to balance the ticket, McCann is the senator from Arizona, so perhaps someone from Ohio or a similar state. Mitt Romney is in the running because of his support in New England.

On the Democratic side the likely nominee is Barack Obama the junior senator from Illinois. When he choses a running mate that person should be older than him with more experience. Barack has very little experience in foreign affairs, so it is likely someone strong in foreign affairs would be selected. Obama’s selection will likely be white and perhaps from a southern state such as Florida or Texas which he would need to win in the general election.

Whoever the nominees of both parties select needs to be qualified, experienced and able to serve as president. The position of vice president is not unimportant. Eight vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency, seven because of the death of the sitting president, and one on the resignation of the president. There have been several unsuccessful assassination attempts, health issues with presidents, and two attempts to remove presidents from office (impeachments).

It is clear the person holding the office of vice president is very important. More attention needs to be paid to the selection process, and once elected the vice president needs to be kept in the loop of the administration.

In this sheet of stamps issued by the African country of Liberia the Presidents shown are from 1928 until 2000. Some interesting observations on the 14 presidents depicted,

  • 3 of them died in office (Harding, FDR, Kennedy)
  • 1 of them resigned (Nixon)
  • 4 of them survived deadly serious assassination attempts (FDR, Truman, Ford, Reagan)
  • 4 of them succeeded to the office of president (Coolidge, Truman, Johnson, Ford)
  • 2 of them were former vice presidents who were later elected president after leaving office (Nixon, George H.W. Bush)

Still think the vice presidency is unimportant?

Stay tuned for more postings related to this fascinating position created by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, and the men who have held it.

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