Citizenship Debate: Part 4

02 Mar

(This is actually Part 4 of a multi-part series.  Please scroll down (or link from the left panel) to read these posts in the proper sequence.  It all flows from a post on “Straw Men, Red Herrings, and Big Lies” and the comments attached so to really understand it all, you need to read that one too.)


And it was erroneous in its understanding of English Law.  In 18th-century England, there was indeed a distinction between “subjects” of the English king and “citizens” of an English town or city. The jus soli principle applied to English subjecthood but did not apply to English citizenship. Anyone born in England or its colonies was an English subject by birth. But, and here is the problem for Gray’s reasoning: a bad premises.  In 18th-century England and its colonies, contrary to his assertion, you could claim citizenship by birth only if your father was a citizen at the time of your birth. Although English “subjecthood by birth” carried a connotation of birth in a particular place, English “citizenship by birth” carried a connotation of inheritance from one’s father.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, is U.S. law. However, the Court’s reasoning in that case, given its inherent flaws, is not a particularly solid basis on which to argue in favor of anyone’s eligibility to be president.

Ellen makes much of the concept of Jus Soli, the rule or law of the soil to assert that anyone born on U.S. soil is then de facto a Natural Born Citizen.  That is certainly what Justice Gray implied so it is reasonable for someone using that case to pick up on one of the critical points.  But is it correct?

In U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, the Court’s reasoning was based largely on the English common law “rule” that, generally speaking, children born on English soil were, at birth, English natural-born subjects, regardless of whether their parents were subjects or aliens. According to the majority’s opinion, this “rule” of English common law was “in force” when the U.S. Constitution was being written and thereafter “continued to prevail” in the United States:

It thus clearly appears that by the law of England for the last three centuries, beginning before the settlement of this country, and continuing to the present day, aliens, while residing in the dominions possessed by the crown of England, were within the allegiance, the obedience, the faith or loyalty, the protection, the power, and the jurisdiction of the English sovereign; and therefore every child born in England of alien parents was a natural-born subject, unless the child of an ambassador or other diplomatic agent of a foreign state, or of an alien enemy in hostile occupation of the place where the child was born. The same rule was in force in all the English colonies upon this continent down to the time of the Declaration of Independence, and in the United States afterwards, and continued to prevail under the constitution as originally established. (Page 169 U. S. 658, U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, 1898)

I already noted that in fact, “subject” and “citizen” were not the same thing under that English Law but read here the dissenting note of the same issue.  In his dissenting opinion, Justice Fuller argued that the majority was factually incorrect on this point. Regarding the “rule” of English common law, the minority and majority disagreed, not over a matter of law, but over a matter of American history:

And it is this rule, pure and simple, which it is asserted determined citizenship of the United States during the entire period prior to the passage of the act of April 9, 1866, and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and governed the meaning of the words “citizen of the United States” and “natural-born citizen” used in the Constitution as originally framed and adopted. I submit that no such rule obtained during the period referred to, and that those words bore no such construction… (Justice Fuller, Dissenting Opinion, Wong Kim Ark, 1898)

P.A. Madison (a writer for the Federalist Blog) agrees with Justice Fuller’s understanding of American history. When the original thirteen colonies gained their independence and became States, they retained aspects of English common law for their own convenience. But English common law did not “continue to prevail” at the Federal or national level (Madison(2006)).

George Mason (1725-1792), called the “Father of the Bill of Rights” and considered one of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States, is widely quoted as saying:

The common law of England is not the common law of these states. (Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention, 19 June 1788)

How much clearer does it need to be?

In 1884, the following commentary appeared in the prestigious American Law Review:

In Wheaton v. Peters, the Supreme Court say: “It is clear there can be no common law of the United States. The Federal government is composed of twenty-four sovereign and independent states, each of which may have its local usages, customs and common law. There is no principle which pervades the Union and has the authority of law, that is not embodied in the constitution or laws of the Union. The common law could be made a part of our Federal system only by legislative adoption.” (Collins)

 OK, let’s make it even clearer… In a recent speech to the Federalist Society, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia confirmed that English common law did not “control” at the national or Federal level after the United States gained its independence from Great Britain:

The common law is gone. The federal courts never applied the common law and even in the state courts it’s codified now. (Audio/Video: Justice Scalia speech, Nov 22, 2008)

Now the debate was never over or settled however, as many still adhered to the literal jus soli viewpoint. Before Ellen adds another post with such views let me do some work for her.  Here are some opinions in opposition to mine and the ones above.  Later in American history, the Opinion of Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates (1862), the Opinion of U.S. Secretary of State William Marcy (1854), and the dissenting opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856), echoed the same viewpoint — that you are a U.S. citizen (and presumably a U.S. natural born citizen as well) if you were born in the United States, regardless of your parents’ citizenship at the time of your birth.

In 1864, Edward McPherson wrote that birth alone in the United States is sufficient to confer natural-born citizenship:

And our Constitution, in speaking of natural born citizens, uses no affirmative language to make them such, but only recognizes and reaffirms the universal principle, common to all nations, and as old as political society, that the people born in a country constitute the nations, and, as individuals, are natural members of the body politic. If this be a true principle, and I do not doubt it, it follows that every person born in the country is, at the moment of birth, prima facie a [natural born] citizen … (McPherson, p.380)

In 1866, George Bancroft expressed the same viewpoint — that all persons born on U.S. soil are natural born citizens:

“…everyone who saw the first light on the American soil was a natural-born American citizen” (Bancroft, p.201)

Early we noted when, in 1983, Judge Richard Cudahy (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit) expressed his opinion that US-born children of illegal immigrant parents are “natural born citizens”

So it is clear that various “authorities” (including, but not limited to, those cited above) have expressed the opinion that birth within the United States is, by itself, sufficient to confer “natural born citizen” status. But, throughout U.S. history, other authorities have expressed an opposing opinion — that one is not a natural born citizen unless one’s parents were U.S. citizens at the time of one’s birth.

In 1789, two years after the Constitution was adopted, David Ramsay argued that a child naturally receives, at birth, the citizenship of its parents:

“[Birthright citizenship] … is confined exclusively to the children of those who were themselves citizens. … The citizenship of no man could be previous to the declaration of independence, and, as a natural right, belongs to none but those who have been born of citizens since the 4th of July, 1776. … From the premises already established, it may be farther inferred, that citizenship, by inheritance, belongs to none but the children of those Americans, who, having survived the declaration of independence, acquired that adventitious character in their own right, and transmitted it to their offspring.” (Ramsay)

Ramsay’s comments were made in connection with a dispute over William Smith’s eligibility to serve as a U.S. representative from South Carolina. Despite their disagreement on the eligibility issue, Smith agreed with Ramsay that a child naturally receives, at birth, the citizenship of its parents, particularly its father:

Vattel, the author we have shown was heavily relied upon by the founders, wrote,

“The country of the father is that of the children, and these become citizens merely by their tacit consent.” (William Loughton Smith, as quoted in The Documentary history of the first Federal elections, 1788-1790, Volume 1, pp.178)

In 1811, the U.S. State Department refused to recognize James McClure as a U.S. citizen (Publius Enigma). McClure was born in the United States, but his parents were not U.S. citizens at the time of his birth. He would have acquired U.S. citizenship at birth if he had been born in a state (such as Virginia) which confers state citizenship to anyone born within its borders. At the time, anyone who acquired state citizenship under state law was automatically a citizen of the United States. But McClure was born in a state (South Carolina) which had not enacted any citizenship laws. In the absence of state citizenship laws, United States citizenship is conferred only to persons born in the United States, of parents who are U.S. citizens:

Mr. Rodman hints, that it would have been sufficient for James McClure to have been born in the United States — he is mistaken. The law of the United States recognizes no such claim. The law of Virginia, of 1792, does — for, “all free persons born within the territory of this commonwealth,” is deemed a citizen. The law of Virginia considers him as a son of the soil. An alien, as well as a citizen, may beget a citizen — but the U. States’ act does not go so far. A man must be naturalized to make his children such. (“Case of James McClure”, The Alexandria Herald, Vol. I, No. 37, October 7, 1811, page 2, left-most column)

In 1820, Virginia Representative A. Smyth indicated that one’s citizenship at birth is determined by the citizenship of one’s father at the time of one’s birth:

“When we apply the term “citizens” to the inhabitants of States, it means those who are members of the political community. The civil law determined the condition of the son by that of the father. A man whose father was not a citizen was allowed to be a perpetual inhabitant, but not a citizen, unless citizenship was conferred on him.” (Rep. A. Smyth (VA), House of Representatives, December 1820, in Abridgment of the Debates of Congress, from 1789 to 1856, Vol VII, 1858, p.30)

In 1845, an article entitled “Massachusetts and South Carolina”, appearing in The New Englander, explained that, in the U.S. Constitution, the term “natural born citizen” means a U.S. citizen not owing allegiance, at birth, to any foreign state. According to the article, all adult U.S. citizens are presumed to owe allegiance to the United States exclusively, but a natural born citizen owes exclusive allegiance from the time of her or his birth:

The expression ‘citizen of the United States’ occurs in the clauses prescribing qualifications for Representatives, for Senators, and for President. In the latter the term ‘natural born citizen’ is used, and excludes all persons owing allegiance by birth to foreign states; in the other cases the word ‘citizen’ is used without the adjective, and excludes persons owing allegiance to foreign states, unless naturalized under our laws. (“Massachusetts and South Carolina”, The New Englander, Volume 3, 1845, p.414)

In 1859, Attorney General Jeremiah Sullivan Black clarified the distinction between a native and a naturalized citizen. All adult U.S. citizens are presumed to owe allegiance to the United States exclusively. The native is a citizen who never owed allegiance to any sovereignty other than the United States.

There can be no doubt that naturalization does, pro facto, place the native and adopted citizen in precisely the same relations with the Government under which they live, except so far as the express and positive law of the country has made a distinction in favor of one or the other. … Here none but a native can be President. … A Native and a Naturalized American can go forth with equal security over every sea and through every land under heaven, including the country in which the latter was born. … They are both of them American citizens, and their exclusive allegiance is due to the Government of the United States. One of them never did owe fealty elsewhere, and the other, at the time of his naturalization, solemnly and rightfully, in pursuance of public law and municipal regulations, threw off, renounced and abjured forever all allegiance to every foreign prince, potentate, State and sovereignty whatever, and especially to that sovereign whose subject he had previously been. (New York Times: Attorney General Black’s Opinion upon Expatriation and Naturalization, July 20, 1859)


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