As inane as the manufactured controversy over Obama's constitutional eligibility to serve as president might be, it does give me a rare opportunity to dust off the "Presidential Trivia" tag and take a walk through some obscure history. Whee!
Much of what has been said about Obama over the past three years bears an eerie resemblance to the case of Chester A. Arthur, who battled doubts about his eligibility and citizenship throughout his career on the national stage. What is certain is that Arthur's father William was a British citizen in 1829 when Chester was born. If, as many totally-not-racist birthers are suddenly claiming this week, having a non-citizen parent negates natural born citizenship, then Arthur indisputably was ineligible to serve (William Arthur was naturalized in 1843). Beyond the question of his father's citizenship, it was also alleged that Arthur was born in Canada. While generally believed to be false, the claim is at least plausible. William Arthur owned a farm 15 miles north of the Vermont-Ontario border. And Chester's birthplace was given as Fairfield, VT, which is within maple syrup-spitting distance of the Canadian border. Does any evidence prove the claim that Arthur was born in Canada? No. Is it plausible, given his father's Canadian property and the fact that Fairfield is practically in Canada? Sure. The combination of A) a non-citizen father and B) a disputed birthplace make Chester Alan the likely choice as the president with the most complicated or ambiguous citizenship status.
Several men who ran for president but failed to win would have raised very interesting questions regarding eligibility. Charles Evans Hughes, who lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1916, was born a dual citizen on account of a British father and British laws that automatically conferred citizenship at birth despite the fact that Hughes was born in New York. While his status as a person born in the U.S. is beyond doubt, Hughes' election would have raised the complex question of whether someone born into dual nationality can be "natural born" for the purposes of the Article II requirements. George Romney (yes, Mitt's dad) ran in 1968 despite being born in Mexico in 1907 to parents who had not set foot in the U.S. since 1886. However, his parents retained U.S. citizenship and never obtained Mexican citizenship, thus he would most likely have been eligible if the matter was litigated. Regardless it is not difficult to see how a case could be argued against him. Barry Goldwater and Herbert Hoover's VP, Charles Curtis, were born in AZ and KS, respectively, before either were granted statehood. Territorial residents had birthright citizenship in most cases, so this is little more than a historical curiosity.
What is particularly funny about the to-do over Obama's birth is that of the people running in 2008, he actually had the least complex citizenship status. John McCain was born in the unincorporated Panama Canal Zone territory, where upon birth an individual was a U.S. "national" but not a citizen (similar to territories like American Samoa or Guam today). His parents were both citizens and he was born on a military base where they were stationed, so the circumstances strongly suggest that he was a naturally born citizen rather than a foreign national born to people who resided (in any permanent sense) in a foreign country. However, it was only a law passed in 1937 that retroactively declared everyone born in the Canal Zone after 1904 a natural born citizen. Despite all the fuss, most interpretations of USC Title 8, 1401 would grant that McCain met the criteria regardless of the retroactive law of 1937 because his parents were both U.S. citizens – and on an active duty military deployment.
Oh, and of course none of the first five presidents were technically eligible since they were British citizens at birth, one and all. But what's a grandfather clause or two among friends?