California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian native, has been arguing that the Constitution should be amended to allow foreign-born citizens to seek the presidency. Why did the Constitutional framers deem it necessary to limit the nation’s highest office to “no person except a natural born citizen”?
Though their concerns may now seem archaic, the framers were genuinely afraid of foreign subversion. Among their nightmare scenarios was the prospect of a European noble using his money and influence to sway the Electoral College, take command of the American army, and return the nascent nation to the royalist fold. At the time, several European figures—such as France’s Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolutionary War—were quite popular in the New World, so the idea wasn’t completely far-fetched.
The framers also took a lesson from Europe, where dynasties constantly schemed against one another. The men who drafted the Constitution were certainly familiar with the tragic example of Poland, where agents from Russia, Prussia, and Austria conspired to install a friendly monarch, Stanislaus II, and subsequently seized upon his weakness and partitioned the country among themselves. Keep in mind, too, that dynasties occasionally shuffled around Europe regardless of national origin; England’s King George I, for example, was a Hanoverian who spoke zero English.
There is scant primary source material attesting to the 1787 Constitutional debate over Article II, Section I, which contains the “natural born” provision. The potential scourge of foreign influence, however, is mentioned several times in the Federalist Papers. And in a letter dated July 25, 1787, John Jay, the future first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote to George Washington:
Permit me to hint, whether it would not be wise & 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.
The Constitution does include an exemption for “a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution,” as the framers themselves had been born subjects of the British crown. Also, the founding document doesn’t include a definition of “natural born.” The formal definition is now covered by Title 8, Section 1401 of the United States Code and includes not just citizens born on American soil, but also those born outside the nation to parents who are citizens—an exception that covers, for example, the children of military personnel serving overseas.
Explainer thanks Jack N. Rakove’s Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.