The Birther Issue

Donald Trump. When Barrack Obama first ran for president in 2008, Donald Trump claimed that Obama did not meet the Constitutional requirements to be President of the United States. Because that became a major issue in the election, I gave my history students a class on the Constitutional requirements for the job of president. I plan to give that class again later this month because the birther issue is back in the news. Ted Cruz was born in Canada, and because of that, a number of people (including some famous experts on Constitutional law) have questioned whether Ted Cruz is qualified to be president. Here is what I told my students in 2008.

There are 3 requirements for the job of President of the United States in the U.S. Constitution.

  1. The president must be 35 years of age.
  2. The president must have lived in the United States for at least 14 years. (The people who wrote the Constitution put in this provision because they wanted to be sure that the president was someone who understood the American people and was familiar with the country. They didn’t want someone who had spent his life in foreign countries.)
  3. The president must be a natural born citizen.

Birth Certificates. You will notice that there is no Constitutional requirement that the president has to have a birth certificate. You sometimes hear people say that the president has to have a birth certificate to prove that he was born in the United States, but that isn’t true. Although it is now standard procedure for someone to issue a birth certificate when a baby is born in a hospital in the United States, very few people prior to the 20th Century had birth certificates. Most of America’s 18th and 19th Century presidents were born at home, and on farms or on the frontier. There was nobody present when they were born to issue a birth certificate. The first U.S. president to be born in a city was Teddy Roosevelt, and he was a 20th Century president. We know that George Washington did not have a birth certificate. Neither did Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Abraham Lincoln. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about birth certificates.

Natural Born Citizen. The Constitution says that in order to be a senator or congressman, you merely need to be a citizen, but in order to be president, you have to be a natural born citizen. What’s the difference? Nobody knows for sure. The Constitution does not define the term ‘natural born citizen’. Congress has never passed a law defining this term, and the Supreme Court has never made a ruling on this issue. A number of people have run for president who were born in foreign countries, but none of them won, so the Supreme Court never heard a test case about this question. Below are the names of some of the men who ran for President of the United States, but who were not born in a state. 

  • George Romney, the Governor of Michigan and father of Mitt Romney. He ran for president in 1968. George Romney was born in Mexico. His parents lived in Mexico most of their lives and were married in Chihuahua. Was George Romney a natural born citizen? (I once met George Romney. It was at the Oakland Airport Hilton while he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.)
  • John McCain was the Republican candidate for president in 2008. He born in the Panama Canal Zone, which never part of a state. McCain came very close to getting elected. He got 48% of the popular vote.
  • Al Gore was born in Washington, D.C., which is also not a state.
  • Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona, but when Arizona was a territory, not a state.
  • Lowell Weicker, the Governor of Connecticut, ran for president in 1980. He was born in Paris, France.

Is Ted Cruz A Natural Born Citizen? If Ted Cruz is elected president, the Supreme Court will undoubtedly be immediately petitioned to decide whether he is or isn’t a natural born citizen. Ted Cruz could have a problem. The Panama Canal Zone was under the jurisdiction of U.S. law when John McCain was born there, and Washington, D.C. has always been under the jurisdiction of U.S. law. However, Canada is a foreign country and has never been under the jurisdiction of U.S. law. Also, both of Ted Cruz’s parents applied to vote in Canadian elections. That could be a big problem for Cruz. There is a long established legal principal that says that if you are a U.S. citizen and move to a foreign country and vote in their elections, that is evidence that you no longer consider yourself a U.S. citizen. Is Ted Cruz qualified to be president? A number of famous legal scholars have written articles on this subject. Some say that Ted Cruz is a natural born citizen. Others say he isn’t. If Ted Cruz is elected president, the Supreme Court will have to decide the question.

What U.S. President Did Not Speak English As His First Language?

Martin Van Buren grew up in a Dutch-speaking home in the town of Kinderhook, New York. He did not learn to speak English until he began going to school at the age of 5. Remember, New York City was originally called New Amsterdam. Van Buren was the first U.S. president born a U.S. citizen. All of his predecessors were born British subjects. When Martin Van Buren ran for president in 1836, his supporters handed out thousands of campaign buttons that said ‘For For OK’, a reference to Van Buren’s nickname ‘Old Kinderhook.’ This popularized the expression ‘OK’ and made it part of the English language. During his presidency, a  number of newspapers noted that when Martin Van Buren became angry or emotional, he spoke English with a Dutch accent. Although Van Buren was a lifelong Democrat, he broke with his party in 1860 and endorsed Abraham Lincoln for president because of his opposition to slavery.

What U.S. President Started An Elephant Stampede In Maryland?

George Herbert Walker Bush was the youngest pilot in the history of the U.S. Navy. He flew combat aircraft at the age of 17 during World War 2. While he was training at an airfield in Maryland near Washington, D.C., Bush liked to swoop down in his plane and look at women sunbathing on a beach along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. One day, a circus set up next to the beach. When Bush buzzed the beach the next day with his airplane, an elephant went berserk and ran away, stomping through nearby residential neighborhoods. After the elephant was recaptured, Bush was reprimanded by his commander. George H.W. Bush often tells people that he holds the honor of being the only pilot in the history of the U.S. Navy to be grounded for starting an elephant stampede. George H.W. Bush flew 58 combat missions during World War 2, was shot down by the Japanese, and received numerous medals and citations for bravery.

(P.S. – I lived in Maryland for 27 years, and I can assure you that elephant stampedes are not an common problem there. People in Maryland do not wake up in the morning, go to their living room windows, look around, and say: “There don’t seem to be many elephants stampeding this morning.”)