When I was in primary and secondary school in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, one thing was made crystal clear in American History class time and time again.

It is this: a natural-born citizen of the United States is the child of two American citizens at the time of his (her) birth.

Most Americans who are over the age of 50 today understand that definition of natural-born citizenship.

We were always told that natural-born status was necessary for Presidents and Vice Presidents of the United States.

No one ever questioned this until the 2008 race for the presidency.

Since then, all manner of information has been circulating about what constitutes natural-born.

The traditional definition of natural-born appears to have come from the case of Minor v Happersett, a Supreme Court case from 1874 concerning Mrs Virginia Minor who sued Mr Happersett, a registrar of voters, because he would not allow her to vote in the State of Missouri. He was operating according to the law as only men could vote at that time. Italics mine below from the decision on what constitutes a citizen:

Additions might always be made to the citizenship of the United States in two ways: first, by birth, and second, by naturalization. This is apparent from the Constitution itself, for it provides [Footnote 6] that

No person except a natural-born citizen or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution shall be eligible to the office of President, [Footnote 7]”

and that Congress shall have power “to establish a uniform rule of naturalization.” Thus, new citizens may be born or they may be created by naturalization.

The Constitution does not in words say who shall be natural-born citizens. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that. At common law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners. Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their

Page 88 U. S. 168

parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case, it is not necessary to solve these doubts. It is sufficient for everything we have now to consider that all children born of citizen parents within the jurisdiction are themselves citizens. The words “all children” are certainly as comprehensive, when used in this connection, as “all persons,” and if females are included in the last, they must be in the first. That they are included in the last is not denied. In fact, the whole argument of the plaintiffs proceeds upon that idea.

Sometime after 2008, Americans read that Chester Arthur was not a natural-born citizen and should never have been the 21st President (1871-1878). Although Arthur’s father was born in County Antrim, if he were naturalised by the time of his son’s birth, his son was a natural-born citizen. His mother was born in Vermont.

A century later, a question arose over whether Vice President Spiro Agnew (1969-1973) was a natural-born citizen. Like Chester Arthur, Agnew’s mother was American, born in Virginia. His father, however, was born in Greece. If he were naturalised at the time of Spiro’s birth, then Spiro was a natural-born citizen. I remember the controversy at the time, but it soon died down. As I recall, he produced the necessary paperwork regarding his father’s status.

It appears that, by the time 2008 rolled around, the Democratic Party went back to the original 1790 definition of American citizenship for their candidate, implying that as long as his mother was a natural-born American citizen, he was, too. His father’s status was irrelevant.

That same year, a bi-partisan legal review and a unanimous but non-binding Senate resolution declared that the Republican Party candidate was a natural-born citizen even though he was born in Panama, where his father was stationed at the time with the US Navy. It is unclear why exactly this was necessary as both of John McCain’s parents were born in the United States. However, some law professors said — and still maintain — that a natural-born citizen must be born on US soil.

Yet, that was not what we were taught in school. The first question from pupils and students was always about children born on military bases or to a civilian family living overseas. Teachers told us that they, too, were natural-born provided their parents were American citizens at the time. (Parents in these situations need to fill out certain forms for their children’s birth certificates.)

Now it’s all mixed up, and the natural-born citizen clause is throwing up a lot of questions that were never asked before. It is surprising to see law professors such as Mary McManamon argue that a natural-born citizen must be born on American soil and Ronald Rotunda purport that natural-born status requires only one US citizen parent.

Consequently, every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he can run for the presidency of the United States — and they are.

This week, lawsuits in Texas and Florida have been filed questioning Ted Cruz’s and Marco Rubio’s natural-born citizenship, respectively.

Cruz’s situation looks to be the more complicated.

I was told that holding dual nationality, which Cruz did between 1970 and 2014, invalidates natural-born status permanently. A popular question often asked of Americans seeking dual nationality of a foreign country used to be, ‘Would you ever run for President of the United States?’ The implication is that, if the answer is yes, don’t apply for citizenship of Canada, the UK, France or wherever. Furthermore, relinquishing the second nationality does not restore natural-born status. It’s gone.

Also, Cruz’s father — a Cuban, then a Canadian — didn’t become a US citizen until 2005.

In Rubio‘s case, neither of his Cuban parents were naturalised at his birth in 1971. They did not become US citizens until 1975.

Cruz accused Donald Trump of not being natural-born because his mother was born in Scotland. However, that is a spurious accusation, because she was naturalised on March 10, 1942. The Donald was born four years later on June 14, 1946. Trump’s father Fred was born in New York, which makes the billionaire a natural-born citizen.

Many will ask, ‘So what?’ However, the Founding Fathers and their immediate successors were intent on ensuring that whoever was going to lead the Great Republic would have no foreign ties or allegiances, even though the earliest presidents were not born of two US citizens. They were thinking of a threat from Britain. By the time I was in school, this natural-born concept was explained in terms of Nazi Germany: ‘What if we had had a president with ties to the Third Reich?’

This is why questions were asked in 2008 about an obscure US senator known only to his peers and the Democratic Party elite. The results of that election have changed the course of American history with regard to eligibility and citizenship status. The country has since been divided on whether natural-born means of one or two parents and whether natural-born status is conferred automatically on those born on American soil regardless of parentage.

The Democratic Party played a blinder with their communications and campaign machine.

It doesn’t matter whether a presidential candidate with questionable citizenship seems ‘nice’ or appears to be a ‘good American’, whatever that might mean. No one really knows until the candidate wins the election and assumes office.

Thinking ahead, one wonders how such lenient interpretations of citizenship will play out 20 or 30 years from now.

It’s also an issue European countries will need to consider sooner rather than later.

18 comments for “Natural-born

  1. January 16, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Furthermore, relinquishing the second nationality does not restore natural-born status. It’s gone.

    To my mind, both parents must have been born in the country as defined at that time – for example before or after the Irish Republic came to be. If the child is born overseas – for example McCain – what of that?

    • January 16, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      His parents were American citizens when he was born in Panama at the naval base. Panama was also then under US control.

      It’s not so much the place as the parenthood, as I explained.

      Again, these days, as the post said, a number of variant interpretations — rightly or wrongly — have arisen since 2008.

      • Rossa
        January 17, 2016 at 11:28 am

        A naval or army base and an Embassy are considered to be the ‘soil’ of the country occupying it. Therefore the US naval base in Panama is US soil. So McCain is American if he was born on the base to American parents.

        However, it would be interesting to know what would be the case if he had been born in a hospital off base but his parents lived on the base and so did he when returning ‘home’ with them.

        • January 17, 2016 at 11:03 pm

          There were — and still are — times when the US military and navy understand that their base hospitals sometimes fall short with regard to hygiene and disease. If the correct paperwork is submitted out soon after the birth, the child is considered natural-born. This sometimes involves visiting an American embassy, but, not having been involved in such a situation, I do not know the details.

          IIRC, someone did say in 2008 that McCain had been born off-base in a hospital in Colon, Panama, which was part of the reason the Senate enquiry took place. Link to McCain’s birth certificate:

          The next link is to a blog written by a twenty- or young thirty-something American lawyer (as was in 2008) who explored Obama’s (mostly) and McCain’s (less so) citizenship. The lawyer did not believe Obama had a proper claim to the presidency with regard to citizenship.

          This particular link discusses the questions surrounding John McCain’s citizenship. I disagree — and so did the Senate (as I explained in the post) — but you can see why Americans would have asked questions:

          The next link from his site points to what I said about being a natural-born American citizen:

          Excerpt with regard to the present incumbent:

          ‘There is a great body of historical, judicial, academic and journalistic evidence which indicates that only a person born in the US to parents who are US citizens is a “natural born Citizen” eligible to be President. But the media, academia, Congress and a supporting circus of blogosphere attack dogs have tried – in vain – to marginalize anyone who speaks truthfully about the issue.’

          I’m glad I bookmarked these, even on the PC that died last year. I had a whole dossier on the subject, some of which has since been lost.

        • mona
          January 18, 2016 at 5:00 pm

          He was born off the base at a hospital in the town of Colon.

  2. Lord T
    January 16, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    The only reason this is an issue is the Democrats wanted someone who didn’t qualify but held lots of the right qualifications, for being elected not for the job, to be President.

    Now they have opened it up everyone has a view.

    Too late everyone the horse has bolted.

    • January 16, 2016 at 11:00 pm

      Thank you, Lord T.

      Agreed 100%, if not more.

      Europeans need to think about this also. To date, they have not needed to do so.

  3. Voice of Reason
    January 16, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    The standard definition for ‘natural born citizen’ in the US is one parent a citizen, or born on US soil. Check out section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

    • January 16, 2016 at 10:57 pm

      Explained in the post.

      • Voice of Reason
        January 18, 2016 at 12:33 am

        So what you were taught in school, as described in your opening statements, was wrong? At least you heard something about the US. When my daughter was in second grade here, her teacher completely left Great Britain off the map of Europe, and didn’t know what was wrong.

        • January 18, 2016 at 9:23 pm

          ‘So what you were taught in school, as described in your opening statements, was wrong?’

          It was a polite way of saying I patently disagree with you.

  4. Mudplugger
    January 16, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Given the pace of development in IVF, three-parent conceptions, cloning and other forms of ‘unnatural’ breeding, our post-colonial cousins will soon need to revisit their scripted definitions to accommodate the minefield ahead.
    In practice, it may prove simpler to give up on independence and return to the fold of our undocumented kingdom, where the issues do not arise, it being all about perception of parentage rather than any of its inconvenient realities.

    • January 16, 2016 at 11:08 pm

      The same holds true for Europe and the Antipodes, wouldn’t you say?

      There is a long-running argument in France, for example, that non-citizen taxpayers should vote in all elections because they pay tax. How long before said non-citizen voting taxpayers want to become citizens on that basis? Then imagine how many of those new citizens enter politics and become Prime Minister or President, as elected from their former status as MPs? It would not take a long period of time.

      Think of the many scenarios that could involve, not only in this country but in others. Some are not terribly agreeable.

      Binding, well-considered provisions need to be made on citizenship, allegiance and higher public office, even in Europe.

      • Rossa
        January 17, 2016 at 11:38 am

        I think this is a classic situation where law enacted in the past to deal with a situation that pertained to those times could be considered out of date.

        As you say in your post CM, it was originally designed to stop a President having any affiliation to the British Crown, let alone the Monarchy. Same goes for a Nazi affiliation though there is well documented evidence of people in our Govt who did let alone an abdication of a King who was an admirer even if not an overt supporter.

        But before we criticise the Americans we do have to remember that the POTUS is a head of state as much as the Queen is. Regardless of whether the POTUS or Queen has any executive power or influence. After all our Queen is of German extraction! A natural born European?!

        • January 17, 2016 at 11:12 pm


          One wonders what the Duke of Buccleuch at the time made of the Georgian (Hanoverian) succession. I had read in The Spectator in the 1990s that the family were the purest successors to the monarchy with regard to bloodline.

          However, the 2008 US election could have avoided all this were it not for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and their PR machine. These days, one should never underestimate their potential for power-grabbing and candidate placement.

          • Rossa
            January 18, 2016 at 3:08 pm

            My own family are direct descendants of Edward III but then so are lots of people related to branches of the Monarchy over the centuries. On both sides of the blanket!

            When Diana married Charles there were people who said that her father Earl Spencer ‘looked down’ on the Windsors as parvenus, because her family was older (as in existed for longer in this country) than his.

            That’s the downside of a history going back well over a millenium. There are families that can trace their roots back before the last invasion of 1066. How far back would you have to go to establish a true hereditary line? Records have been lost over time so it is probably an impossible task.

            I would also say there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ Englishman, Irishman, Welshman or Scotsman as we are all a mix. Therefore does it really matter today? And why should where you are born really matter when we have such diverse populations? Surely we want a head of state to represent everyone in a country.

            • January 18, 2016 at 9:26 pm

              When other cultural or historical factors come into play, the topic might well matter — profoundly.

              There may well come a time when said eventual head of state might not ‘represent everyone in a country’.

              That was my point. Such an eventuality needs to be anticipated and planned for. It will make historical monarchical succession look like a cakewalk. I am talking not just about the UK but other European countries.

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