The Natural Born Citizen Clause is Unfair

Which one of these people would have been eligible to run for president?

For years now, conservatives such as Joseph Farah and Donald Trump have been claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He showed them his birth certificate, but even that failed to shut some of them up. Some people have even claimed that he is not eligible to be president because his father was not a citizen. Some conservatives, to be sure, have realized that the birther movement is ridiculous and damaging to the GOP and have basically told birthers to stop acting like paranoid, racist crybabies. It is fascinating to wonder what would have happened if Republicans had put as much effort into finding a phenomenal candidate to challenge Obama as they did in trying to claim his presidency itself is illegal. Anyway, all of this begs an interesting question. While claims about Barack Obama being a foreigner or otherwise not being a natural born citizen are absurd, would it be so terrible if he was? I realize that the process of amending the Constitution is very tedious, and it is really not worth expending political capital to go through all of the steps necessary to repeal Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5’s natural born citizen requirement. At any rate, we have the ability to stop observing this clause without actually repealing it. How? The answer lies in the Fourteenth Amendment, passed by Republicans. Section 1 of the amendment stipulates that, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” It is ambiguous, but it could be interpreted as meaning that naturalized citizens from foreign nations cannot be denied any right that is given to other U.S. citizens, including the right to run for president. The rest of this blog post will be devoted primarily to arguing that is would be best if the United States took this approach and began allowing foreign-born citizens to run for president. In the first place, we have to look at the concept of what I will term “border nationalism.” This is the idea that foreigners run the risk of being hostile to American ideals, disloyal to America, or both. This is different from racism in the sense that people who are border nationalists can believe in equality for people born in the United States, regardless of their race, while being suspicious of foreigners regardless of their race. When this ideology gets taken to the extreme, it becomes xenophobia. But is this idea a fair reason to ban immigrants from running for president? Is it even rational? First of all, the assumption that a foreigner will automatically have anti-American values and that this should disqualify all foreigners from running for president is ridiculous. The views of foreigners, just like the views of Americans, run the gamut on pretty much everything. I should note that the whole concept of “American values” can be somewhat tiresome. In 2005, Newt Gingrich attacked possible pro-gay rights decisions by the Supreme Court as being influenced by foreign, left-wing nations and insisted that we stick to “American traditions.” As far as I am concerned, homophobia is one “American tradition” I would love to see end. Additionally, I believe that a look through history will highlight the silliness of the “natural born citizen” clause. Before he faded into the background from making one stupid comment too many, Glenn Beck began trying to channel Thomas Paine as a model for the Tea Party Movement. Seeing conservative Mormon Glenn Beck try to channel liberal secular humanist and economic redistributionist Thomas Paine was a bit weird, but that’s another discussion for another time. At any rate, Paine earned his fame and popularity largely by writing Common Sense in 1776, a defense of the American colonists’ attempts at independence. He also wrote other works, such as Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice. What is less well known is Paine’s background. He was born in a town called Thetford, which just so happens to be in England. After spending some time at sea, Paine returned to England and began working there as a tax officer. It was not until 1774, when he was well into his thirties, that he moved to Philadelphia. Longtime readers are well aware that I am not fond of the Founding Fathers as a group. St. George Tucker was indeed correct when he said that a single day as an American slave was a thousand times worse than anything that the British government had done to white colonists. Yet the American Revolution is almost universally described as a noble event that should be celebrated. And Thomas Paine played an important role in it. Tea Partiers have celebrated this role while ignoring the fact that if Thomas Paine were alive today, the law that they support would make him ineligible to be president. What would a Thomas Paine presidency have been like? Paine was not at the Constitutional Convention, but we have a pretty good idea of his political views from his writings. He certainly adhered to the good aspects of the Founding Fathers’ ideology, but he showed less inconsistency than most of them did. When Paine spoke of natural rights, he meant them to apply to blacks. Paine has widely been credited with writing an antislavery tract in 1775, but there is not a consensus among historians as to whether he was the true author. However, it is now documented that Paine urged Thomas Jefferson not to bring slaves into the land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. He also pleaded unsuccessfully with Jefferson to join with him in a plan of emancipation. He expressed sympathy for those held in bondage, and despite the fact that slavery was legal in Pennsylvania when he first arrived there, Paine never owned a single slave. Perhaps, unlike George Washington, President Thomas Paine would not have signed a bill strengthening the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause. He certainly would not have disgraced the office of president to the extent that George Washington did, rotating his slaves in and out of Pennsylvania to keep them from becoming legally free and pursuing a courageous runaway slave in his spare time. To be fair, the Social Security system might have collapsed by now, since Paine might have enacted it one hundred forty years earlier and wanted to start giving people payments when they turned fifty. And his proposal to give every person the equivalent of over $27,000 as a one-time entitlement when they reached adulthood would also not be good for the budget. But I think these would have been a permissible sacrifice to have avoided the shame that the slave master Washington brought upon the presidency. Well, some people will say, Paine is just one example. Let us try another. Had it not been for a foreigner, America might have been taken over by Japan during World War II. The German-born Albert Einstein played a crucial role in developing the atomic bomb. Again, the dropping of the bomb posed a serious ethical dilemma, but most Americans consider it to be a necessary decision. Those Americans should thank Einstein and remember that were it not for him, they might not even be able to vote for presidential candidates. And indeed, Einstein’s commitment to freedom surpassed that of the majority of Americans of his era. He publicly supported legalizing homosexuality in 1903, nearly sixty years before Illinois became the first U.S. state to do it and one hundred years before the Supreme Court did it nationwide. Einstein publicly condemned racism towards blacks and supported the campaign to save the “Scottbsboro Boys,” nine black youths in Alabama falsely accused of raping white women. (And where was Samuel Liebowitz, the Scottsboro Boys’ lawyer who defended them pro bono, born? Why, Romania of course.) After he moved to the United States, he eventually joined the NAACP. In 1937, when black opera singer, Marian Anderson, was denied a room at an inn in Princeton, Einstein invited her to stay at his house. While Einstein’s Socialism would have had an ill effect on the American economy, think of how his presidency could have been at the forefront in fighting for civil rights. Now let’s look at the birthplace of the men who have assassinated American presidents.

John Wilkes Booth: Bel Air, Maryland

Charles J. Guiteau: Freeport, Illinois

Leon Czolgosz: Alpena, Michigan

Lee Harvey Oswald: New Orleans, Louisiana

Not an immigrant among them. The vast majority of Confederate leaders, who seceded to preserve slavery, were born in the United States. And face the facts: we have had some truly horrendous native-born presidents. Some of them, like Woodrow Wilson, brought the U.S. dangerously close to totalitarianism. Some of them, like Andrew Jackson, had no more respect for human rights than Muammar Gadafi. The best person should get the job of president regardless of where they were born.


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