11.26.10

Who Cares Where He's From?

If Chicagoans don't want Rahm as their mayor, they won't vote for him, says Andrew Roberts. So let's throw out these patronizing citizenship laws—including the one in the Constitution.

The rows over whether Rahm Emanuel has been a resident of Chicago over the past year, as required by that city’s Board of Elections, highlight a much deeper issue concerning the American Constitution itself. Article II Section 1, which bans anyone from becoming president who is not “a natural-born Citizen” is paranoiac, racist, and infantilizes voters. Furthermore, it cuts out talented politicians who are American in everything other than accident of place of birth, something over which they by definition had no control.

Just as the people of Chicago should be able to decide at the ballot box whether they consider Rahm Emanuel to be sufficiently Chicagoan to be their mayor, and not have it decided by lawyers arguing before the Board of Elections, so the American electorate should be trusted to decide whether they think a presidential candidate is likely to defend American interests, regardless of where he was born.

No fewer than seven of the 39 signers of the Constitution were born in foreign lands, including Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the West Indies and would have made a very fine president. Statesmen shouldn’t have to have been born in the countries they lead: Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t a natural-born Frenchmen, and the British Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law was born in Canada. One of the best kings of England, William III, was born in Holland. Winston Churchill himself would not have conformed to the residency qualifications for a single one of the nine constituencies that he represented in his long period of service in the British House of Commons. It shouldn’t matter where you’re from—especially in a nation of immigrants like America—if the people are willing to vote for you.

Article II Section 1 was passed at a time of intense paranoia against foreigners and is a disgrace to American democracy. Joseph Story, a Supreme Court justice appointed by James Madison, wrote with approbation, “It cuts off all chance for ambitious foreigners, who might otherwise be intriguing for the office; and interposes a barrier against those corrupt interferences of foreign governments…which have inflicted the most serious evils upon the elective monarchies of Europe. Germany, Poland and even the pontificate of Rome, are sad but instructive examples of the enduring mischiefs arising from this source.”

That wasn’t even true in the 19th century, and certainly isn’t true today when if ordinary Americans don’t like someone, they can always vote against him. There might be plenty of reasons why Arnold Schwarzenegger should not be president, but the fact that the U.S. Constitution bans him from the ballot should not be one of them.

The effect of Article II Section 1 has been to cause ludicrous legalistic arguments over John McCain’s eligibility (he was born in the Panama Canal Zone); over Barry Goldwater’s candidacy (he was born in Arizona before it became a state) and over George Romney, who ran for president in 1968 despite having being born in Mexico. Vice President Charles Curtis, who served under Hoover, was born in Kansas the year before it achieved statehood, and President Chester Arthur’s presidency was challenged on rumors that he had been born in Canada rather than Vermont, which recalls these absurd “Birthers,” who allege that President Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii. Why should anyone care where he was born if he can carry the Electoral College after an open and fair election?

America is ill-served by this patronizing, paranoiac and inherently racist law.

For a society that prides itself on anyone’s ability to come from anywhere, or indeed nowhere, and get to the top, America is ill-served by this patronizing, paranoiac and inherently racist law, which ought to be repealed.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the UK in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.