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?


  • PissedinMN08 says:

    According to Wikipedia (which Martin Van Buren's page links to a government page), Van Buren (#8) is the first president who wasn't born a British subject. William "No Coat in March No Problem" Harrison was also born before the Revolutionary War, so that makes 8 out of the first 9 presidents who weren't natural-born citizens.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Now after Obama has dignified the Birthers and their cause, we start to see the tip of the ice cube of investigation of the phenomenon.

    For all those who believe that it is all because Obama is half black, I would like to remind you all that Bill Clinton was dragged through the mud by the Republicans and the media for: killing Vince Foster and five other individuals, participating in the White Water scandal, travelgate and, of course having sex with other than his wife. Except for the last "crime" the others were complete lies.

    According to many, Bill Clinton was our first black president, but I don't think his commonality with Obama is anything but both being Democrats.

  • I clearly saw the words 'The Jamaica Hospital' at the top of Donald Trump's birth certificate.

    Was I the only one to see that irony?

  • canuckistani says:

    Curtis was also part Native American, and raised initially by his Kansa mother on a reservation, so would that have made his citizenship status more questionable as well, given that not all natives were automatically citizens?

    And just being picky, but the border is between Vermont and Quebec, not Ontario. As an adopted Canadian, I apologize for having to point this out.

  • I know that there was some fluctuation of the location of the border with Canada and New England in the early 19th Century, but don't know how that may pertain to Arthur's particular place of birth or the timing thereof, but that could be part of the story as well.

  • Oooo! Even *more* concerning, about Curtis, Kansas wasn't even a state when he was born!! So apparently it's the age old adage of: IOKIYR.

  • Sheesh, somebody needs to go back and read the Constitution before writing about it. The first 5 presidents were eligible because they were US citizens at the time the constitution was adopted – it's right there in Article II.

  • @canuckistani:

    Native Americans weren't granted citizenship until 1924. According to Wikipedia, though, Curtis was born in Topeka and then lived on the reservation for part of his childhood, which only makes his citizenship status more complex. As a biracial child born in a town, would he have been considered a natural-born citizen? Or was he considered a member of a tribe, and thus not a citizen until 1924? I'm assuming, based on his political career, that he was considered a citizen – or was granted citizenship at some point earlier than '24 – but it's certainly an interesting added layer to the issue of citizenship.

  • Mexico has jus soli (birthright) citizenship, so wouldn't that make Mitt's dad George a Messican citizen? Also, prior to 1967, one forfeited his or her US citizenship by virtue of voting in a foreign election. If George's parents ever voted in Mexico, that could imply that George did not benefit from jus sanguinis and was thereby solely a Mexican citizen. If so, by the new birther standards, Mitt may not be elegible for the presidency.

  • "
    William Arthur owned a farm 15 miles north of the Vermont-Ontario border.

    Ontario does not border Vermont.

    Do they teach you Yanks any geography in school?
    Or is that what wars are for?

  • Paul W. Luscher says:

    Goin' with Tommytimp and the others on this one:

    The difference between Obama and the others is….he ain't white (enough).

  • 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.

    WOW. Did not know that. See, that adds some meat to the conspiracy I'm trying to get birthers interested in about how Mitt Romney actually died in Paris in 1968 and was replaced by some "Manchurian" Mitt, a French usurper but now maybe it's really a Mexican usurper, which as we all know will SURELY get the righties in a twist because if there's one country they hate worse than France its Mexico AMIRIGHT PEOPLE? I just can't understand why no one has written books about this or circulated e-mails. Here he's running for President for the second time, and all we get is *crickets.* I'm truly dumbfounded.

    Well, not truly. But you know …

  • GREAT comment on that mediamatters link from Beale:

    "Because they're ultra post-racial, of course.

    "You see, they're so far beyond being racists that it's not even racist to be racist any more. If they were still just racists, then they'd be ashamed of their racism, because they know it's wrong. But being ultra post-racial, they don't have to be ashamed of racism any more because it no longer exists, so you can be a racist without fear of being a racist.

    "Now, anyone who calls them racists are just living in the past, when racism still exists, and their view of the world is still colored by that racism, which makes them racists for pointing out that racism. If they would just move beyond racism like the racists have, then they wouldn't have this desperate need based on white guilt to point out racism, which is no longer a bad thing."

  • Remove President Obama from the topic and it sucks the chum right out of the shark tank, doesn't it? If anyone doubts that the current controversy is strictly related to melanin, ancestry, and non-Euro names, rather than the legal merits, let the few, mild comments on today's post be the gentle whisper of a pony bomb.

  • Middle Seaman: "According to many, Bill Clinton was our first black president, but I don't think his commonality with Obama is anything but both being Democrats."

    One might also say that they have the commonality of both being the worst kind of corporate centrist "Democrats".

  • That McCain was born on a US military base has no standing on the issue of his citizenship. If it did, then the child born by a foreign person on any of the hundreds of US military bases around the world would have claim to US citizenship.

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