Article II Section I Clause 5 Presidential Requirements

What did the founders mean when they made the natural born citizen requirement?

Described very well below.

Let’s start, then, with the text of the Constitution. In the relevant part, Article II, Section 1 Clause 5 it reads:

"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".

Definitions are a very important part of any investigation into what the Founders meant when they raised the threshold for eligibility for the president to “natural born citizens” rather than leave it at the lower level of being just a simple citizen required for members of Congress.

As with any of us, the words used by the Founders must be interpreted in light of the definition given to them at the time they were used. For example, there aren’t many people today that would use the word “gay” to mean happy, despite the fact that such was the meaning attached to that word in years past just as the founders would have no idea what a "pizza" is.

Accordingly, so that we may understand just how high the Framers of the Constitution intended to set the bar for presidential qualifications, we must analyze the meanings attached to the words they used at the time those words were used, despite any changes that may have occurred in understanding across the intervening centuries.

Or, as one writer has observed, “Otherwise, written texts become as shifting and impermanent as the clouds — blown hither and yon throughout the years by those who unthinkingly read in their own uninformed understandings, or deliberately pervert the text to further their own agenda.”

That’s it. No finer point is put on that term in the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, or any record of the debates of the Constitutional Conventions of 1787.

In the face of such a dearth of definition, we could abandon the quest to understand the Founders’ intentions, or we could pause and recognize that where a word’s definition is so universally understood no additional clarification would be necessary. 

That is to say, everyone in the room at the State House in Philadelphia that summer of 1787 knew what was meant by the term “natural born citizen,” and they felt no obligation to provide any additional insight.

For example, I don’t have to explain to readers what I meant by “summer” in the previous paragraph because everyone knows that that is the season of the year starting in June and ending in September. So it was in 1787 with “natural born citizen.”

The next important step in our analysis is to identify the source of our Founders’ concept of “natural born citizen.” There are three historical mentions of being equivalent to a natural born citizen. The first comes to us in 451 BC with Pericles in his Citizenship Doctrine. The second is from British jurist Matthew Bacon in 1736 and the third from Emmerich de Vattel`s book The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law (1758).

The people that wish to change the Constitution will claim Blackstones Commentaries from 1765 as an authority but his was an ever expanding definition for the tyrant King in which even those born in foreign countries were to be considered as natural born subjects so as to bring in more tax revenues, it had nothing to do with actual legal citizenship of the subject.

King George III was actually born of German parents as was King George I and II. His father and Grand father were actually German, not English at all, born in the Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany. The tyrant King wanted to legitamize himself with Blackstones most welcome version. One must save his own head first.

It is almost certain that the men who drafted our Constitution accepted Emerich de Vattel as the authority on the definition of that vital concept among many other items of need a new nation might desire, as with treaties, contracts and wars.

It can be claimed without exaggeration that it is Vattel’s interpretations and writings on the subject of the proper constitution of government that was most influential on the Founders of the American Republic. As a matter of fact, Thomas Jefferson, indisputably one of the lead framers of our nation’s government, ranked Vattel’s seminal The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law as highly as similar treatises by Grotius and Pufendorf.

Benjamin Franklin shared Jefferson’s admiration for Vattel. In 1775, Franklin wrote in a letter:

" I am much obliged by the kind present you have made us of your edition of Vattel. It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising state make it necessary frequently to consult the law of nations. Accordingly that copy, which I kept, (after depositing one in our own public library here, and sending the other to the College of Massachusetts Bay, as you directed,) has been continually in the hands of the members of our Congress, now sitting, who are much pleased with your notes and preface, and have entertained a high and just esteem for their author".

Next, consider the irrefutable fact that Vattel’s interpretations of the law of nature were cited more frequently than any other writer’s on international law in cases heard in the courts of the early United States, and the Law of Nations was the primary textbook on the subject in use in American Universities at that time.

For all the preceding reasons we are right to turn to the Swiss-born Vattel’s Law of Nations for our understanding of the definition of “natural born citizen” just as our Founding Fathers did.

To that end, here are a few relevant selections from Vattel’s The Law of Nations or The Principles of the Laws of Nature regarding the concept of “natural born citizen”:

§ 212: “Natural born citizens are those born in a country to parents who are also citizens of that country. Particularly, if the father of the person is not a citizen then the child is not a citizen either. Children cannot inherit from parent`s rights not enjoyed by them.”

§ 213: “While those individuals described above may be permitted to remain in the country of their birth, they are not naturally endowed with the rights of citizens.”

§ 214: “A country may allow a person born in a country to foreign parents the status of citizenship, this is called naturalization. That is a function of law, not of birthright.”

§§ 215, 216 & 217: “Children born overseas to parents who are foreigners in that country do not become natural born citizens of that country, rather they are citizens of the country to which their parents owe allegiance.”

One very astute writer ably summarized the import of Vattel’s statements:

The republican concept of “natural born citizenship” is radically different from the feudal notion, of “natural born subjectship.” Under feudalism, merely being born in the domains of the King made one — by birth — a “natural born subject.” 

But in Vattel’s Model and our Constitutional Republic, Citizens are “natural born” only if they are born of Citizens.

Finally, in 1787, John Jay, who later became the first Supreme Court Chief Justice and one of the authors of The Federalists Papers, wrote the following in a letter 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.

This note is about allegiance. They wanted the President to have unbridled American allegiance and that can only happen when a child is born of citizen parents.

Accordingly, Jay’s recommendation was accepted by the Convention and became part of the constitutional requirements for executive eligibility.