Becoming President: Natural-Born Citizens Only or All Citizens?

Article II, Section I of the Constitution states, “No person except a natural-born citizen, or citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of president.” This means, according to the 2000 census, that roughly ten percent of the population of Americans are ineligible to run for president, as they are naturalized citizens, not natural-born. This issue has emerged quite a few times in Congress. For instance, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) presented House Joint Resolution 68 in 2000, which would allow naturalized citizens to become president. This concept has never gotten off the ground partly because of the popular public opinion. A national poll in 2003 found that 64% of Americans were against the idea of having naturalized citizens become eligible for presidency (Rourke).

Forrest McDonald is an advocate of the Natural-Born only policy. He explains that the reason this was an issue was deemed a necessary inclusion was fear of foreign influence. In fact, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts wanted to take the issue so far as to stop foreigners from becoming citizens at all, claiming that the naturalized citizens would always have divided loyalties both to their home land and to America. John Jay, Superintendent of Foreign Affairs (the predecessor of today’s office of Secretary of State), claimed that it would 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.” Pierce Butler, an Irish-born delegate from South Carolina, developed an intense plan that would defeat all objections arising against earlier proposals for electing the president. However, given the doubts concerning divided loyalties that Elbridge Gerry, John Jay, and others expressed, Butler’s proposal also included what became Article II, Section I of the Constitution. It is evident that the writers had a clear reason to fear conspiracy and divided loyalties, but the

Question is whether this clause is still necessary today. McDonald feels that the caution of the framers should indeed be continued today. He gives an example of money. Potential presidential candidates spend millions of dollars on their campaigns. Imagine a country giving billions to a naturalized American citizen who was born and raised in the country in question. There would be quite a bit of divided loyalty in such a case. The presidency has been elevated into the most powerful position in the world. The safeguards around it are now more important than ever, especially considering the president’s role as commander in chief. How could that power be securely assigned to a foreigner? There is no way to know that an enemy country would not train a young person to infiltrate our country’s political system, one day becoming president. Or that a naturalized citizen that became president may one day have to face war against his former homeland. McDonald fully believes that we should continue to be guided by the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and does not feel the Constitution should be amended in this case.

John Yinger believes all citizens should have the opportunity to become president. He feels that naturalized citizens, being denied this right to run for president, become second-class citizens. He supports H. J. Res. 88, which would “extend presidential eligibility to naturalized citizens and would thereby ensure that all American citizens have exactly the same rights” (Rourke). He gives a keen example of the unfairness of this clause. He wants us to picture a high school civics class conducting a mock presidential election. He raises the point, “Should the teacher tell naturalized citizens in the class that they are not allowed to run for president, just as they could not run in a real election? Or should the teacher simply point out that their candidacy in class would not carry over if the election were real? Either way, this situation undermines the standing of some citizens and is therefore an assault on the principle of equal rights” (Rourke). He also states that there is no way of telling which person, naturalized or natural-born, would be subject to foreign influence. There have been millions of naturalized citizens who’ve served this country in the government, in the military, and in all other areas of American life. He also points out that the majority of treason and governmental corruption involve natural-born Americans, not naturalized citizens. Yinger believes that the denial of

Presidential eligibility is subject for a constitutional amendment. A group called Citizens for the Constitution have a set of guidelines for amendments. The five guidelines that deal with the substance of amendments are listed here: 1) Constitutional amendments should address matters of more than immediate concern that are likely to be recognized as of abiding importance by subsequent generations; 2) Constitutional amendments should not make our system less politically responsive except to the extent necessary to

Protect individual rights; 3) Constitutional amendments should be utilized only when there are significant practical or legal obstacles to the achievement of the same objectives by other means; 4) Constitutional amendments should not be adopted when they would damage the cohesiveness of constitutional doctrine as a whole; 5) Constitutional amendments should embody enforceable, and not purely aspirational, guidelines. The amendment in H. J. Res. 88 meets all these guidelines by addressing a “matter of abiding importance, mak[ing] our system of government more politically responsive, not hav[ing] an administrative or legislative alternative, reinforc[ing] the cohesiveness of constitutional doctrine as a whole, and is easy to enforce” (Rourke). Yinger believes that the clause that limits the eligibility for presidency violates the principle of equal rights that is integral to our democracy.

Samuel Huntington said, “The distinctive aspect of the American Creed is antigovernment character. Opposition to power, and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power, are the central themes of American political thought” (Edwards III, Wattenberg, Lineberry 371). The textbook points out that all American presidents have been White, male, and (except for John Kennedy) Protestant. The president has four major Constitutional powers: National security powers; Legislative powers; Administrative powers; Judicial powers. For all this, the Constitution makes very few restrictions on who may run, “a natural-born citizen at least 35 years old and must have resided in the United states for at least 14 years” (Edwards III, Wattenberg, Lineberry 372).

John Yinger raises many valid points in his argument against the natural-born clause. It really made me think twice about my position. However, I still believe that the framers got it right, and the president should be a natural-born citizen. Especially today, in times of terrorism and such. It would be very easy to, like Huntington said, to be suspicious of a foreign president. I suppose I would always have scenarios in my head of a spy infiltrating our government, or secret allegiances being made with his homeland. While it does not seem “fair” that naturalized citizens cannot run for president, there are plenty of other inequalities against almost everyone in America. I know that a man and woman, doing the same job, truly are not yet paid the same hourly wage. There are inequalities here, and frankly they are just a part of life. I would gladly trade a few cents an hour for the peace of mind I have with a natural-born president.

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