When choosing among presidential candidates, Americans find plenty to debate about their fitness for office, experience, and economic and foreign policies. But the framers of the Constitution made no mention of such qualifications; they were primarily concerned that the president be truly American. And one of the ways that a president counted as truly American was to be, in the Constitution’s phrase, a “natural-born citizen.”
In the modern era, this phrase has been particularly contentious. There was the clamor over whether Canadian-born presidential candidate Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz met that requirement; there were accusations that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. We can go back at least to 1968, when candidate George Romney had to explain his birth in Mexico.
The concerns appear to arise from a kinetic modern world that impels millions of people to cross political borders seeking refuge or opportunity, and then cross social borders, falling in love and having children. But the fluid nature of nationality and citizenship isn’t just a modern condition—it’s a defining feature of American identity that dates all the way back to the beginnings of the republic.
The idea of nationality and citizenship being fixed at birth derived from the feudal concept of fealty owed by vassals to their lords, according to William Blackstone, the preeminent authority on English law at the time of the American Revolution. “Natural-born citizens” were those “who are born within the dominions of the crown of England,” including its colonies. Then there were “aliens”—“such as are born out of it.” Birthplace mattered, Blackstone explained, because “immediately upon their birth” natural-born subjects “are under the king’s protection; at a time too, when (during their infancy) they are incapable of protecting themselves. Natural allegiance is therefore a debt of gratitude which cannot be forfeited, canceled, or altered,” at least not by the mere will of the individual.
Though Blackstone’s concept awarded citizenship to children of aliens born within the British Empire, it also posed obstinate impediments to immigrants wanting to enjoy the rights of freeborn Englishmen, not least the right to own land. The same principle of natural allegiance determined that an alien’s loyalty remained fastened to a foreign sovereign. Immigrants might become “naturalized” citizens only if they renounced old allegiances, swore new oaths of allegiance, and demonstrated over some designated number of years their loyalty to the adopted nation.
In the American environment, these rigid notions of national identity eroded amid the turbulent streams of migration pouring into the colonies. Outside New England, which remained an Anglo-American bastion restrictive to immigration, most American colonies competed with one another to draw immigrants. Some extended property rights to resident aliens, while others legislated their own naturalization laws, which were often more inclusive than English law. They tossed out religious barriers against Catholics, Jews, and Protestant dissenters and exempted Quakers and others from having to violate their faith by taking an oath of allegiance. South Carolina, among the most liberal, granted white Protestant immigrants who came into the colony all the rights and privileges “as if they had been born of English parents within the Province.” It even welcomed refugee debtors by prohibiting the collection of debts owed by aliens prior to migration.
By 1775, historians estimate that less than half the inhabitants of the 13 colonies were of English descent. British officials, wary of dissident aliens and fugitive debtors filling their American dominions, tried to inhibit immigration by restricting westward settlement and resisting permissive naturalization laws in the colonies. Among the grievances in the Declaration of Independence, one denounced the king for “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners.”
But once they had a nation of their own, Americans worried about the dangers of aliens insinuating themselves into the highest reaches of power in the fragile young republic. In The Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton warned of foreign intrigue among those “deadly adversaries of republican government” who harbor desires “to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” and might raise “a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” Hamilton held this belief even though he was himself an immigrant to New York born in the British West Indies (as those who have seen the current eponymous Broadway musical know). Even though it’s hard to find evidence of actual plots, Hamilton and his fellow Federalists were especially worried that America’s frail, young confederation would fall prey to foreign intrigue emanating from jealous European empires (Britain, Spain, and France) not ready to relinquish their ambitions in North America.
The idea that the president of the United States must be a natural-born citizen originated apparently with John Jay, a friend and collaborator with Hamilton on The Federalist Papers. As president of the Continental Congress and as a diplomat during and after the Revolution , Jay developed a healthy distrust of sinister European powers abroad. Jay wrote to George Washington in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention: “Permit me to hint, whether it would not be wise and seasonable to provide a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government, and to declare expressly that the Command in chief of the American army shall not be given to, nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen.”
Washington thanked him for his “hint,” but the convention adopted language that was far more elastic. Article II, Section 1, specifies:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, 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 language not only allowed immigrants such as Jay’s friend Hamilton to run for president, it also made George Washington eligible. Washington and Hamilton had been born British subjects; both became citizens of the United States on July 4, 1776, the day the nation was born.
How did that alchemical transformation happen on that specific day? As David Ramsay, a South Carolina historian, explained in the 1789 pamphlet, A Dissertation on the Manner of Acquiring the Character and Privileges of a Citizen of the United States, once King George cast Americans outside his protection and Parliament—in effect, declaring war on the colonies—the bond of natural allegiance between subject and sovereign was broken. The Declaration of Independence announced that the people of the United States, absolved of all allegiances to the British crown, were now citizens of new “Free and Independent states.” By this revolutionary stroke, nearly 3 million people “who had been subjects, became citizens,” though Ramsay took pains to clarify that “Negroes are inhabitants, not citizens,” that is, not among the “mass of free people, who collectively possess sovereignty.”
Ramsey was adamant that people could not claim American citizenship as a birthright unless they were born after the Declaration of Independence called the nation into existence. But he outlined additional paths to becoming an American that included residency within the United States. In a republic based on consent of the governed, he explained, simply living under the new government as a consenting adult demonstrated loyalty. This explains why the framers wanted American presidents not only to be natural-born citizens (or, for the time being, citizens at the time of adoption) but also to have lived 14 years as adults under the new government.
Ten of the first 12 presidents were born British subjects; for them and all future presidents the requirements of residency and citizenship would mitigate suspicion of lingering effects of “natural allegiance” to foreign sovereigns. The framers built into the Constitution an ingenious process of Americanization with proofs of birth, residency, and loyalty that expressed a new concept of citizenship in which individual consent and choice, as much as the “natural allegiance” derived from the accident of birth, determined one’s nationality.
Even if the framers were acting on genuine fears of foreign enemies, we should recognize they were also making room, even in the highest office of the land, for talented immigrants who threw themselves in with the revolutionary republic.Where and when people were born didn’t necessarily determine their national allegiance. Those “distinguished revolutionary patriots,” Constitutional scholar Joseph Story put it, “had entitled themselves to high honours in their adopted country.”
The framers did not allow their fears to close the door on the talent and ambition of immigrants who chose to shed old, and adopt new, allegiances—that is, they allowed newcomers to become American.