Does John McCain Have an Alexander Hamilton Problem? A Constitutional Challenge May Loom Over McCain’s Eligibility for President

The expected nomination of John McCain has been eagerly anticipated by constitutional scholars, not because of political support but selfless academic interest. McCain’s election would trigger review of an obscure part of the Constitution: the birth eligibility provision of Article II. The requirement that an American be “natural-born” has long been controversial, but few associated John McCain with the problem as opposed to other leaders like Arnold Schwarzenegger. McCain, however, may be a foreign born citizen given his birth in the Canal Zone.
McCain was born in 1936 in the Panama Canal Zone while his father was stationed there as a naval officer. In 1787, however, the framers insisted that any president be natural born — that is, born within the United States. It is a requirement that some of us have long criticized as counter to our tradition as a nation of immigrants. Click here.

However, absent a constitutional amendment, the question remains whether McCain can claim natural-born status. There has never been a president sworn into office who was not born in one of the fifty states. It would be a very close question that has some interesting implications for current disputes in other areas.

People like GOP Senator Lindsey Graham have rightfully noted how gross it would be to deny such eligibility to someone who was born while his parents were stationed abroad during service to the country. However, no one would debate the inequity but that is entirely irrelevant to the legal question of what constitutes a natural born citizen.

Section 1 of Article II of the Constitution states:

“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.”

The 12th Amendment to the Constitution carries over the same requirement: “[N]o person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.”

The standard is so clear that it has barred some deserving candidates. Others like Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president, was rumored to have been born in Canada but claimed that he was born in Vermont. Notably, McCain’s defense of his eligibility seems to differ a bit from Ted Olson’s theory. Click here.

A strong argument can be made that the Framers considered natural born to refer to a birth on U.S. soil. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton was viewed as ineligible due to his birth in the West Indies. It has often been suggested that the provision was written in part to block Hamilton by his detractors — though this may be apocryphal. It seems more likely that people like Jay were concerned with a preference among some to have a King, including some foreign princes who might rule the nation. Moreover, Hamilton was a citizen of the United States at the time of the signing of the Constitution.

The phrase “natural born” was in early drafts of the Constitution and appears to have been initially suggested by John Jay — who wrote a letter to George Washington on the requirement. In his letter, Jay wrote:

Permit me to hint, whether it would be wise and 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.

The last time that we faced this question in a serious candidate was Barry Goldwater, who was technically born while Arizona was a territory in 1909. Other such questions were raised by Mitt Romney’s father who ran in 1968 despite his birth in Mexico and former Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who was born in Paris.

Absent a constitutional amendment (which has been introduced in prior years), the issue is simply one of constitutional construction. The zone was a foreign military base like Guantanamo Cuba. Ironically, the Bush Administration has been arguing for years (with Senate support) that U.S. laws and jurisdiction do not extend to Cuba in the cases of the detainees. If such bases are now treated as U.S. soil, it is unclear how that would affect this long-standing claim that it is not for purposes of civil liberties.

Military installations like Panama were sitting on leased land. They are in that sense different from embassies. The important thing to remember is that we are not talking about citizenship but what constitutes American soil for a natural born classification. Notably when illegal immigrants have a child in the United States, the child is a U.S. citizen. Does that mean that foreign citizens who give birth at United States military hospitals or installations are entitled to U.S. citizenship for the child? That would encompass quite a few people. How about U.S. ships or aircraft? Notably, most framers had a negative view of foreign entanglements and probably did not envision large military installations around the world. They most likely believe that natural born meant U.S. soil.

Ted Olson has reportedly been retained to deal with the question. It raises the specter of a repeat appearance by Olson in front of the Supreme Court on the next president. This redux of Bush v. Gore is almost too painful to imagine. Again, the Republican appointees would be asked to adopt an uncharacteristically liberal interpretation to benefit a Republican candidate for the White House. The problem is that any effort to determine this question before the general election would be viewed as speculative and a request for an advisory opinion, which is disallowed. We would have to wait for the conclusion of the general election to determine if McCain could be sworn into office or his vice president elevated to the presidency (and then select a new vice president). If you come to these things to watch the cars crash, that would be a true constitutional pile up.

For a recent story on the issue, click here.

26 thoughts on “Does John McCain Have an Alexander Hamilton Problem? A Constitutional Challenge May Loom Over McCain’s Eligibility for President”

  1. Is everybody retarded? The definition of natural born citizen is anyone who is an American Citizen at birth regardless of where they were born. John McCain was born in Panama, since his parents were American citizens he was given American citizenship at birth.

    Natural born citizens are born overseas all the time.

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