Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Martin Van Buren, immigration and the presidency

December 6, 2010 by Dr. Steve Frank


December 5 marked a milestone in American history, but not one that many citizens living outside of Kinderhook, NY, will recall or think to celebrate. It was the birthday of Martin Van Buren, Kinderhook’s favorite son.

Van Buren was the eighth president of the United States and the first to be born after independence. That accident of birth makes Van Buren the first naturally born American citizen to serve as president. Before him, all of our presidents, going back to Washington, were British subjects when they first saw the light of day. With Van Buren, we crossed a demographic divide.

That accident of birth makes Van Buren the first naturally born American citizen to serve as president.

Unlike someone born in 2010, Van Buren could have served as president whether he was born on American shores or in a foreign land. The clause in the Constitution that requires the president to be a “natural born” citizen exempted foreign-born citizens living in the United States at the time the Constitution was adopted in 1788. Van Buren, born in 1782, would have squeaked through that loophole even if he had been born in, say, Indonesia.

Since we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts, this Opinion Lab does not engage with the factual question of where President Obama was born. Instead, it asks you to formulate a position on the question: Should we amend the Constitution to let foreign-born U.S. citizens become president?

The issue in a nutshell: When the Framers wrote the Constitution in 1787, they feared the influence foreign powers and foreign wealth might have on the new nation. In Europe, royal families in one country often tried to put one of their own on another nation’s throne. To prevent some powerful European nobleman from coming to America, buying up political favors and seizing the presidency, the Framers adopted a clause making foreign-born U.S. citizens (except those present at the time of the Constitution’s adoption, whose loyalty had been proven) ineligible to become president.

Advocates of change say the requirement is out-of-date and un-American. Millions of immigrants have made this the most diverse nation on Earth and contributed to its strength. As a matter of equal rights, proponents say, they should have an equal chance to dream about becoming president. Opponents say the Framers’ concerns about the possibility of divided allegiances are still valid and that the Constitution should not be changed.

Here are six opinions on whether to amend the Constitution to let foreign-born U.S. citizens become president.

YES: People who become U.S. citizens by choice often better appreciate the Constitution and American values than those who are born here.

NO: There can’t be any question of “dual loyalties” in the person who serves as both chief executive and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

YES: Fears about a foreigner becoming president may have been well founded in 1787, but they’re outdated and anti-American today.

NO: With more than 250 million native-born Americans to choose from today, there is no need to expand the pool of those eligible to run for president.

YES: A minor change in wording to one clause of the Constitution will not affect how the nation is governed and will bring the document more in line with American values.

NO: Unless there’s a compelling need to change the Constitution – which in this case, there is not – the Framers’ original wording should not be altered.

What’s your opinion?


Sign up for our email newsletter