Constitutional scholars don’t exactly know why the president of the United States must be a “natural-born” citizen, when members of Congress must only be plain old citizens. In the summer of 1787, John Jay wrote a letter to George Washington, suggesting that it would be “wise & seasonable” to prevent foreigners from becoming commander in chief. Jay’s letter also provides the first written example of the phrase “natural-born.”
A comprehensive report by the Congressional Research Service quotes Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story from 1833, who explained that the requirement “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.”
At the time, rumors circulated in Philadelphia that the Bishop of Osnabrugh, the second son of George III, had designs on the U.S. presidency. Or another son, Frederick, Duke of York. The presidency was a king-like office, and it shouldn’t go to a king. The colonies had fought too hard to submit to hereditary monarchies. Leave aside that families named Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, and Clinton have all taken a noble interest in the office, and we’re still left with the words of the Constitution.
No person except a natural-born citizen can become president. The reason all this matters: Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz might be considering running for president.
Well, every senator definitely considers running for president, but an unnamed source told the National Review that Cruz is “listening,” which is campaign code for “quietly sharing his fondest ambitions with others.” Ted Cruz was also born in Calgary. That’s in Canada. And the National Review piece says something curious, that “Cruz’s mother was a U.S. citizen when he was born.” Nothing about Cruz’s father, a Cuban who made a successful life after coming to the U.S. in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear. Cruz is confident that he’s a natural-born citizen, the article says.
He is. As is Barack Obama, who in a worst-case conspiracy scenario was born in a foreign country to an American mother. President Obama, obviously, was born in Hawaii. But if you compare Ted Cruz’s true-life scenario and the Obama conspiracy theories, even then, they’re both citizens, born to Americans on foreign soil. (If you’re actually curious about English common-law tradition of citizenship by soil and by blood, by all means read the entire, absorbing CRS report.) Both Cruz and Obama, though, also show the difference between what immigrants were to George Washington and John Jay, and what they are now.
In 1787, the not-yet-completely-United States of America lacked the confidence to think they could withstand intrigue from a charismatic member of a noble foreign bloodline. What’s remarkable about immigrants, now, is how they breed success. How they leave their children with the tools to work hard and a need to win. Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, Rhodes Scholar. Ted Cruz, clerk to William Rehnquist. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). It’s good to live in a country that has to answer this archaic question about being natural-born, where second-generation immigrants can aspire to become king.
But, if in a fit of Constitutional originalism, you’re actually worried about the influence of foreign power, there’s a better way to do it than by arguing about whether a politician is a soil citizen, a blood citizen, or not a natural-born citizen at all. ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation run a search engine called the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, which lets you determine, for federal politicians, donations from and contact with registered lobbyists of foreign powers.
Jindal is a state politican, and Cruz and Rubio haven’t been in office long enough, but Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)seems pretty clean. Hillary Clinton, though, looks a bit like the Bishop of Osnabrugh.