What is a "natural born" citizen? An obvious interpretation of a "natural born" person would be a child born in the United States to American parents. Likewise, a "naturalized” citizen, that is a person born in a foreign country to foreign parents who later acquired American citizenship through naturalization, would not be eligible to serve as President because that person would not be a “natural born” citizen. What about a child born in a foreign country to American parents?
As Judge Story suggests, the proper way in which to interpret the eligibility clause under the circumstances would be to look at its original purpose, and to adopt that interpretation which "best harmonizes with the nature and objects, the scope and design, of the instrument.” Although the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention and the authors of The Federalist did not discuss at length the eligibility clause, we know from reason and experience, as Story explained, that "the great fundamental policy of all governments" is "to exclude foreign influence from their executive councils." This, he observed, "cuts off all chances for ambitious foreigners, who might otherwise be intriguing for the office; and interposes a barrier against those corrupt interferences of foreign governments in executive elections, which have inflicted the most serious evils upon the elective monarchies of Europe." It was thought dangerous, in other words, to make the presidency available to a person who might have just recently come to the United States and might still feel an allegiance to a king, a czar, or a foreign government.
The term "natural born citizen" in the Constitution draws on a long history in British common law. For example, a law passed in Britain in 1677 law says that "natural born" citizens include people born overseas to British citizens. This usage was undoubtedly known to John Jay, who apparently suggested the "natural born citizen" wording and who was the father of children born overseas while he was serving as a diplomat. This wording also appears in the Naturalization Act of 1790, which was passed by the first Congress, a Congress dominated by the Founding Fathers.
The Nationality Act of 1790, passed by the first Congress, stated that "children of citizens of the United States that may be born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States shall be considered as natural born citizens." That language did not remain in subsequent laws governing citizenship.
One authority on the presidency is confident that the principle survives. In the 1957 edition of his book, "The Presidency," Edward S. Corwin of Princeton University wrote that "the general sense of the provision of the 1790 act has been continued in force to this day."
The Annotated Constitution, prepared by the Library of Congress, cites only one authority on this question in its most recent issue, published in 1963. It refers to a 1950 analysis written for the Cornell Law Quarterly by Warren Freeman of the Rutgers University Law School faculty.
Freeman argued that "a foreign-born child of American parents can rightly aspire to the position of president and hold such high office in accord with the eligibility requirements laid down both under common law principles and the entire body of statutory law." He quoted heavily from an article written for the Albany Law Journal in 1904 by Alexander Porter Morse, whom he described as one of the foremost legal scholars on citizenship laws. Morse had written that the authors of the Constitution "generally used precise language" and would have used the term, "native born citizens" if they had meant to exclude from the presidency citizens born abroad of American parents.
The Framers were not men who dropped words in by accident. They thought about every word. They argued about every word. No word was unnecessarily used, or needlessly added.
The children of American citizens born abroad were always natural born citizens. It is grossly incorrect to conclude that "natural-born citizen" applies to everybody born in the United States, irrespective of circumstances. It is grossly incorrect to conclude that everybody born in the United States, irrespective of circumstances, is eligible to the Presidency, while the children of American citizens, born abroad, are not.
If the meaning of the text is clear, the inquiry ends. A natural born citizen is a person born of American parents. Thus a person born abroad of American parents, according to the Constitution, would be eligible to the office of President. This wording of the Constitution is believed to have been adopted as a tribute to Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the British West Indies.
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