The Original Meaning of 'Natural Born'
39 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2016 Last revised: 12 Feb 2016
Date Written: January 7, 2016
Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that no one but a “natural born Citizen” is eligible to be President of the United States. Modern conventional wisdom generally holds that the phrase “natural born Citizen” includes anyone made a U.S. citizen at birth by U.S. statutes or the Constitution. But that conventional wisdom is, on its face, under attack and open to doubt. If anyone born a U.S. citizen is eligible, the word “natural” in the eligibility clause is superfluous. Further, in general in eighteenth-century legal language, natural meant the opposite of “provided by statute” (hence “natural law” and “natural rights”). And plausible arguments can be made for a narrow meaning of “natural born” on the basis of either traditional English common law or eighteenth-century continental public law. To this point, modern scholarship has provided no comprehensive response to these objections.
Nonetheless, as matter of the Constitution's original meaning, the conventional wisdom is correct. This article defends a broad view of the original meaning of the eligibility clause on the basis of eighteenth-century English parliamentary practice. The key to understanding the eligibility clause is Congress’ power over naturalization, which in turn is best understood by examining parliament’s naturalization power. By the mid-eighteenth-century, Parliament had power to define by statute who would be recognized as a “natural born subject” – a power that, along with others, was called naturalization. In a succession of Acts, Parliament extended this designation (which originally only applied to those born in England) to various categories of people born outside the country. In adopting the phrase “natural born” from English law, the American framers likely understood that they were using a phrase without a fixed definition and subject to legislative alteration through the naturalization power. That conclusion in turn provides sound support for the modern view that Congress can create categories of “natural born” citizens by statute.
Keywords: natural born citizen, president, eligibility clause, elections, originalism
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation