What the US constitution really says about birth

is this:

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.

As Chris Kelly points out, that rules out anyone born in a state that was not yet a state when the Constitution was adopted. So yes, it rules out Obama. And neither were Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, James Garfield, William Howard Taft, Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover, etc etc etc. (Ah, the joy of pedantry!)

Kelly also claims that “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…” means that only those in existence at the time of the Constitution’s adoption can be President. He gets this by taking “at the time of the Adoption…” to modify ‘person’ or ‘citizen’ rather than ‘state’. This reading seems less natural to me, and also incompatible with the first one.

Still, fun with literal-mindedness. And yet another strike against the Originalists. What’s not to like? (Thanks Troy!)

6 thoughts on “What the US constitution really says about birth

  1. Actually, Kelly’s assertion about only those alive during the adoption of the Constitution is *exactly* how I interpreted it!

  2. Mr Jender, same here.

    I recently had a painful conversation with a “birther.” I don’t really get engaged; it’s pointless, but nonetheless it is pretty awful to hear that stuff. Apparently there’s a tape going around of an African American preacher who is castigating Obama and declaring he’s not an American and not even black. Maybe it’s some fake thing, but the birthers are taking it seriously.

    The thing that struck me was once again the intensity with which the birthers talk about it. It reminds me of the way one can feel when something really bad happens and, one says, it all seems like a bad dream.

    I’m not sure we can get into the head of a real racist who now has a black president, but I think they are feeling frenzied. I suspect that what fuels their beliefs is in part the deep conviction that Obama cannot really be president. That cannot be; it’s just too wrong.

  3. That’s not at all how I’d interpret that sentence. The common interpretation of that clause is that the person had to be a citizen at the time of the adoption; that is, that it allowed for those who were not natural born in the first few cycles simply because…well, there was no such thing as a citizen of the country until the country existed.

    So…I’m confused by this post.

    Maybe my ConLaw education is failing me.

  4. Zippa,

    It’s a sort of play on punctuation, namely, the comma after “a Citizen of the United States” — under the sort of punctuation we’d use now, that comma would imply that “a Citizen of the United States” was simply an appositive and that the basic sentence said, “No person except a natural born Citizen…at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution”; alternatively, if you ignore the comma, you could take “a Citizen of the United States at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution” to be a clarification of what “natural born Citizen” means.

    The point, I take it, is not that these are what the Founders meant, nor that they are reasonable ways to interpret the clause, but rather to suggest that there’s a kind of slavishness to the text that really just leads to absurd word-games with the text and to following the letter rather than the spirit. So it’s actually a parody rather than a serious proposal.

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