This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Jon Meacham: Allow non-native Americans to run for president

Donald Trump made me do it.  Those are not words I ever expected to say, but, as Margaret Thatcher once observed, it’s a funny old world. For several years, I — like, I suspect, many of you — have watched the nativist and irrational obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate with disdain, horror, bemusement — and then back to horror.  A lot of people thought that if you ignored the issue, it would go away.  But that doesn’t really work with crying children, and it surely hasn’t worked with the birther issue.

Trump’s unserious showboating on the issue and Michelle Bachmann’s call for presidential candidates to “put their birth certificates on the table” drove me to do some long-delayed homework: why, exactly, did the framers decide that presidents and vice presidents had to be native-born citizens?  And what should we do about it now, in the 21st century? To be clear: Barack Obama was born in the United States in 1961, and he is fully eligible to be where he is.  Though I suspect there are a lot of days when he wonders why he wanted the job in the first place.

But that’s another story.  Little is known of the story of the native-born clause.  As reconstructed by Akhil Reed Amar of Yale,  the provision is rooted in the framers’ fears not of immigrants, who were allowed to hold any other federal office, but in anxieties about imported noblemen.

According to Amar, “In 1787, the more plausible scenario was that a foreign earl or duke would cross the Atlantic with immense wealth and a vast retinue and use his European riches to buy friends and power on a scale that virtually no American could match.”  Amar reports that “several months before the constitution was drafted … Confederation Congress President Nathaniel Gorham, had apparently written to Prince Henry of Prussia, a brother of Frederick the Great, to inquire whether the prince might consider coming to the new world to serve as a constitutional monarch.” I don’t know about you, but more than two centuries on I’m willing the roll the dice on a Prussian takeover.

If we were to repeal the clause, we would open the doors to the children of the new America, a nation that began to take shape when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965.  Orrin Hatch suggested this almost seven years ago — he was thinking then of a possible Schwarzenegger bid — and you can imagine how far the initiative got. Amendments take time, but this one is worth the effort.

And just think: if it ever passes, we can call it the Trump Amendment.  And with that kind of branding, even the Donald might sign on.

Watch more “In Perspective” essays by Jon Meacham.

Watch the rest of the segments from this episode.

  • thumb
    Memorial Day every day
    Beyond the backyard BBQ: Honor and aid those who have served.
  • Fast and too furious?
    Can accuracy and the demand for instant information coexist in the media?
  • thumb
      Steinbeck's Salinas Valley
    John Steinbeck's hometown came to worldwide notice through the Grapes of Wrath. Not all city fathers were pleased by the portrait. Explore what has changed and what remains the same in Salinas.