Time To Eliminate The “Natural Born Citizen” Requirement

With all the birther talk these days, it's probably time to question whether we even need the "natural born citizen" rule anymore.

Reacting mostly out of what he admits is frustration over Donald Trump’s resurrection of the birther myth, PBS’s Jon Mecham argues that it’s time to consider removing the requirement that the President of the United States be a “natural born citizen”:

Little is known of the story of the native-born clause.  As reconstructed by Akhil Reed Amar of Yale,  the provision is rooted in the framers’ fears not of immigrants, who were allowed to hold any other federal office, but in anxieties about imported noblemen.

According to Amar, “In 1787, the more plausible scenario was that a foreign earl or duke would cross the Atlantic with immense wealth and a vast retinue and use his European riches to buy friends and power on a scale that virtually no American could match.”  Amar reports that “several months before the constitution was drafted … Confederation Congress President Nathaniel Gorham, had apparently written to Prince Henry of Prussia, a brother of Frederick the Great, to inquire whether the prince might consider coming to the new world to serve as a constitutional monarch.” I don’t know about you, but more than two centuries on I’m willing the roll the dice on a Prussian takeover.

If we were to repeal the clause, we would open the doors to the children of the new America, a nation that began to take shape when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965.  Orrin Hatch suggested this almost seven years ago — he was thinking then of a possible Schwarzenegger bid — and you can imagine how far the initiative got. Amendments take time, but this one is worth the effort

Meacham also spoke about the idea on PBS’s News Hour on Friday:

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Both Allahpundit and Glenn Reynolds seem to suggest that Meachem is over-reacting here just a little bit, especially to the extent that he calls Trump’s revival of the birther myth a “horror,” while other conservative bloggers seem to be contending that this is proof that Trump is “getting to” liberals like Meacham. I think both points are a bit off the mark. I’ve always tended to think that the birther myth, and it’s continued acceptance by a substantial portion of the GOP base, is a more serious issue than most on the right have treated it. Yes, they’re crazy, and yes the birther myth, like the “secret Muslim” myth is, by and large, motivated by racism, but when politics starts drifting into the area where the opposition is questioning the very legitimacy of the government, it’s something worth paying attention to. Moreover, the necessity to ensure that conservatism doesn’t get taken over by extremists was something that William F. Buckley, Jr. was well aware of in the 1950’s. Today, his lessons regarding the John Birch Society seem to have been largely forgotten. Indeed, the JBS now seems to be gaining respectability in some circles on the right. Allowing groups like this to gain influence means that the movement as a whole moves further away from mainstream America, and that poses some quite obvious electoral problems.

Morever, there is merit in Meachem’s proposal. When the Constitution was drafted, the concern was that men with allegiances to foreign princes, most of whom led nations far more powerful than the newly formed United States of America, would attain positions of power. Because of that, the Constitution required that a member of the House of Representative have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and that a Senator have been a citizen for at least nine years. In the case of the Presidency, only someone actually born in the United States would be considered eligible for the office.

Times have changed significantly since 1789, and the dangers to the United States of a naturalized citizen who could possibly attain the Presidency but for the “natural born citizen” provision are much less than they used to be. Occasionally there have been discussions about the fact that certain candidates who would be ineligible to run for the White House because of this restriction, most recently Arnold Schwarzenegger, although his ultimately failure as Governor of California certainly makes it far less likely that he’d have any future success in politics in California.  At this point, a President who was not born in the United States (or on American territory as John McCain was) is not a serious threat to the Republic.

At the same time, though, it seems unwise to open the Presidency to just anyone who happens to have become a naturalized citizen. Rather than eliminating the requirement, it would be better to change it to be more in line with the citizenship rules for Congress, like this perhaps:

No person except  a natural born Citizen one who has been a citizen of the United States for at least twenty years, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

This provision would ensure that only someone who has been a citizen for at least two decades, and who has spent the majority of that time as a resident of the United States, could be President. It recognizes the greater importance of the Presidency that the Founders intended to convey by making the citizenship requirements for that office more stringent, while still opening the field up just a little bit more. The italicized portion is, of course, largely irrelevant at this point, and was largely meant to ensure that men like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson could be President in the early years of the nation (otherwise the bench would have been theoretically empty).

This is hardly the most important issue facing the country, and hardly the first part of the Constitution I would suggest amending, but Meachem’s argument has merit. Of course, this idea, like every proposed Constitutional Amendment over the past 40 years, is unlikely to go anywhere. Given the super-majorities required to ratify an amendment and the extent to which our political culture is so sharply divided, it seems unlikely that any Constitutional Amendments will be ratified in the near future. Nonetheless, this is a change that strikes me as a good idea.

 

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Hey Norm says:

    Given that the John Birch Society is resurgent in the Republican party the birther/Muslim/racism/homophobia will get much worse before it returns to it’s closet. I have no problem with Arnold from Austria or McCain from Panama being president. I just really don’t want to endure the attendant “national adult conversation” we will have to have first.

  2. John Peabody says:

    In some quarters, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was once considered a viable presidential prospect, if only he had been born in America.

  3. tom p says:

    While I find their politics abhorrent, it strikes me as somehow “un-american” that neither Nikky Haley or Bobby Jindal can even run for President.

  4. Michael says:

    Who cares what a douche like Meacham thinks anyway?

  5. Tom,

    Jindal was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Haley was born in Bamberg, South Carolina. They are eligible to serve.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I would repeal it in a heartbeat.

    From what I’ve been able to read, the clause was inserted to combat a conspiracy theory that the Founders were setting-up an office that could be held by a Prussian prince and which would lead to a monarchal restoration and the death of the Republic.

    The operative term is ambiguous; most likely because the Founders didn’t care. Particularly since the founding generation was exempting all of the foreign-born residents at that time. I think people forget how radical that was, given the number of non-English speaking, cultural and religious separatists who were living in the colonies, who didn’t give a damn about the new country.

  7. G.A. Phillips says:

    Yes, they’re crazy, and yes the birther myth, like the “secret Muslim” myth is, by and large, motivated by racism,

    talk about crazy, good grief.

    I say live here for 20-25 years, and no hanging out with terrorists, domestic or otherwise.Oh and speak English!Oh and call your self an American, not Kookamonga American or some racist nurturing liberal doctrine carp like that!

    Any one else got any suggestions?Perhaps an anti Communism test.

  8. Jay Tea says:

    Given that the John Birch Society is resurgent in the Republican party…

    Purely for entertainment value. Not to be taken internally or seriously.

    Don’t believe everything you read at Little Green Footballs, Norm. Hell, don’t believe ANYTHING.

    Tom p, both Jindal and Haley can run for president — Jindal was born in Louisiana, Haley in South Carolina.

    J.

  9. Jay Tea says:

    A few years ago, such an idea was being bandied around as “the Schwarzenegger Amendment.” I think it’s outgrown that name, but I think it would be an OK idea.

    J.

  10. Ernieyeball says:

    While we are at it let’s eliminate term limits on the Presidency.
    Wouldn’t that be “Original Intent” as promoted by some?
    Ronald Raygun may have gone for a third term.
    I wonder what the world would be like today had he served four more years?
    Term limits are meaningless, arbitrary measures of time.
    Any political benefit they might add is eclipsed by the loss of political freedom I suffer from not being able to vote for the incumbent if I want to.

  11. sam says:

    @Jay

    “A few years ago, such an idea was being bandied around as “the Schwarzenegger Amendment.” I think it’s outgrown that name, but I think it would be an OK idea.”

    Right. As Professor Amar points out, the original native-born thing was put in the constitution because there was a real fear that some crypto — or not-so crypto — royalist would take over the country and undo the revolution. I’m pretty sure we’re past that. Foreign-born American citizens love this country no less, and perhaps take its blessings less for granted, than those born here. President Schwarzenegger sounds ok to me. Time to retire that particular constitutional provision.

  12. john personna says:

    I realize the budget debacle is a slow burn, but it would be really nice if it could stay on top of the news until solved.

    If we are attracted by bright shiny things, like unlikely constitutional changes, why should the pols take us seriously?

  13. G.A.Phillips says:

    Ronald Raygun may have gone for a third term.
    I wonder what the world would be like today had he served four more years?

    lol, Whats gonna happen if Barack Ozero gets 4 more?
    I think we need a one year waste more money then all of the other guys in history combined re vote and kick his crazy tax and spend A$$ out provision.

  14. Hey Norm says:

    Ga Phillips…
    Obama has lowered the taxes of 90% of the country. If your opinion is based on factual error, well…

  15. Southern Hoosier says:

    If we are getting rid of the natural born citizen requirement, then why not the age and the need to be a US citizen as well? If the American voters think a 20 year old kid that just crossed the border and can’t speak a word of English, would make the best president, then why not?

    Why not eliminate all voter requirements as well?

  16. Bob in Zion says:

    Maybe we could piggyback this amendment with one ending birthright citizenship for those born to illegals. The everyone would get something they like.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    If the American voters think a 20 year old kid that just crossed the border and can’t speak a word of English, would make the best president, then why not?

    Maybe we could piggyback this amendment with one ending birthright citizenship for those born to illegals.

    Ahh, it’s so easy to see what particular things really really really bother some people…

  18. Ernieyeball says:

    GAP sez: “Whats gonna happen if Barack Ozero gets 4 more?”

    I dunno G Spot, what is going to happen?
    I’m sure your prognostications are better than all the other Swamis out there.
    Why don’t u help all of us out and share your clear vision of the future.

  19. The Monster says:

    By characterizing the “birthers” as “motivated by racism”, you’ve proven you’re no better than the Hard Left jerks who throw out the unsubstantiated charge of “racism” against anyone who opposes Obama’s agenda. No one should take your writings seriously if you are willing to play The Card so cavalierly.

    There are very good reasons why we should never repeal the natural-born-citizen provision. We cannot entrust the power of the unique office of POTUS to anyone whose loyalty to this country is in the slightest doubt.

    To take it out of the Obama case, let’s pretend that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as CA Governor was wildly successful, and that he left the state flush with surplus cash, low unemployment, vigorous business growth, and generally the model for other states to emulate. Let’s further pretend that his popularity led to a mass movement to repeal the natural-born provision, which in turn got him elected at the next election after the amendment was ratified.

    The very first time some issue came up which could find the US and Austria on different sides, and President Schwarzenegger had to make a decision about it, it would be impossible to know if he were giving gsome deference to the Austrian position at the expense of the US position, or perhaps trying to avoid the appearance of doing so, and thereby influence his decision against Austria, and in the process also hurt US interests. A President does not expose the inner workings of his brain to the public, so we’d never know how much damage were being done to the country because of the perceived conflict of interest.

    On the other hand, a Senator Schwarzenegger wouldn’t get to be a sole decision-maker. He’d have to debate with 99 other Senators to influence legislation, treaties, etc. He can also abstain from a vote where he feels that a conflict of interest might be reasonably inferred. POTUS is not allowed to recuse himself from decision-making. The buck stops at the Oval Office.

    The Framers had very good reasons to put this restriction in the Constitution, and those reasons have not ceased to be valid (unlike your careless, baseless allegations of racism).

  20. Wiley Stoner says:

    The problem with changing something which is in the body of the constitution would require a constitutional convention. I don’t think we want to go there. If you do not like the rules, move.

  21. Wiley Stoner says:

    Didn’t Jon Mecham the guy that drove New Week into the ground. Let us abide by what he wants. Sure.

  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    Obama has lowered the taxes of 90% of the country. If your opinion is based on factual error, well…

    lol, oh my Darwin……

    I dunno G Spot, what is going to happen?
    I’m sure your prognostications are better than all the other Swamis out there.
    Why don’t u help all of us out and share your clear vision of the future.

    Four more years of the stupid half a$$ commie collage crapbrained Donkeycrap that’s been going on so far but trillions of times worse I would Imagine Ernioneeye…

  23. mannning says:

    Now there is a hot potato for you! No chance at all that it could pass the amendment process in today’s political climate, and one needs a much more compelling argument than given so far by Mecham or any others for the idea to get traction. Prudence tells us to leave this idea alone and leave the Constitution alone if you can’t set forth truly compelling reasons for changing it. Why change the process at all anyway? Do we not have sufficient and qualified native Americans to fill the job? Do you want to import our President now, with due regard for the residency requirement?

    That said, I expect some liberal whacko to propose legislation for this idea in the near future, if only to rile the conservative base and take time and attention away from really important legislation. I guarantee that it would rile lots of people! This is a waste of time.

  24. Ernieyeball says:

    Wiley S: “The problem with changing something which is in the body of the constitution would require a constitutional convention.”

    I’m not sure what is meant here by the “body of the Constitution”.
    Article V states “…Amendments, which,..shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes as Part of this Constitution,..”
    Seems to me that the entire document, Amendments and all, is “the body of the Constitution.”

    Article I, Section 2 was changed by Amendment XIV, Section 2. Article I, Section 3 was changed by Amendment XVII. Article I, Section 4 was changed by Amendment XX, Section 2. Article II, Section 1 was changed by Amendments XII and XXV. Article III was changed by Amendment XI. Article IV, Section II was changed by Amendment XIII.

    Looks like the “body of the Constitution” has been changed by Amendment several times.

  25. NoZe says:

    I agree that it wil be a cold day in Hell before the Constitution is ever amended to remove the prohibition on foreign born presidents. Still, if I had my druthers I would leave it up to the voters. Honestly, is there any real chance that Vladimir Putin or Moammar Ghadafy of some Prussian prince could enter the New Hampshire primaries and have a shot at winning the presidency? I think the average voter can figure out those whose loyalties are to the U.S. and those whose are not.

  26. John425 says:

    It is in there to also cement the notion that an American President does not have allegiance to any other nation.
    Hypothetically, how do you think Ahnold would treat Austria, the land of his birth? Would he deal with Austria to the detriment of US interests? Don’t want to take that chance.

  27. NoZe says:

    Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived in the U.S. since the 1970s, for most of his adult life. He’s built a life here, married, raised a family, had a successful career, and governed the nation’s largest state for 8 years. In becoming a U.S. citizen, he publicly swore to forswear loyalty to any other country. Does anyone really believe that he might be some sort of Austrian mole? Is there really any question as to which country he’s loyal?

  28. Maggie Mama says:

    What a great way to tempt another country into planting a “Manchurian Candidate”!

    Why on earth would we want to do that — seems to me our Founding Fathers were smarter than we on many issues.

  29. Jess says:

    I’m thinking there are very few people that would wage war against the country of their birth; especially if they still have family in that country. Considering the possibility exists that any country could become the enemy of the United States, the requirement of being “natural born” is necessary.

  30. Mike says:

    How naive you are…not to mention arrogant and smug.

    What we see in this country now with Mr. Obama is that he doesn’t represent American values…i.e. hard work, rugged individualism, entrepreneurship, limited government.

    That’s why we see this push for Obama’s birth certificate. Not racism…not stupidity…not lack of a stable mental state (how can anyone take you seriously?). It’s because the answer is either being intentionally left unanswered by his administration to give fuel to arrogant mouthpieces like you, OR there IS a controversy behind his birthplace/birth certificate. Which would be the biggest Presidential scandal in our history…

    What happened to the liberals last decade with their good ol quote “Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism”? They certainly loved to tout that during the Bush years…

    Doug, you’re a joke.