American Legal History

Alexander Hamilton and Presidential Eligibility

(This project is still in the process of partial revision, as I have a pile of correspondence and newspaper articles that I am still arranging and formatting the links and scans/uploads for)

The clause of Article II, Section I of the United States Constitution that establishes the qualifications for the Presidency was adopted without debate or comment during the Constitutional Convention. The lack of recorded discussion of the text of this clause, and especially its requirement that the President be a "natural born Citizen," has led to speculation that it was intended to render specific individuals ineligible for the Presidency rather than merely to exclude those born abroad to non-American citizens as a class. This project attempts to investigate this theory as it relates to Alexander Hamilton, by asking two questions: Was the eligibility clause of Article II, Section I intended, in whole or in part, to exclude Hamilton from the Presidency, and did it exclude Alexander Hamilton from the Presidency?

The United States Constitution, Article II, provides:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Hamilton's Qualifications

During the period when a presidential run by Hamilton would have been practically possible, ranging from his resignation as the Secretary of the Treasury in 1796 to his death in 1804, a hypothetical candidate Hamilton would have easily met the latter two of the required criteria. In 1796, when his resignation as Secretary of the Treasury would have allowed him to run for President, he would have been 41 years old. Likewise, he had been a resident of New York for some 22 years in 1796, dating from his initial attendance at King's College (Now Columbia University) since 1774.

Despite some speculation that the first clause of Article II, Section I quoted above was specifically aimed to render Hamilton ineligible to stand for election to the Presidency [lnk], the historical record does not appear to support the existence of actual substantial concern among those involved with the drafting of the constitution over a Hamilton presidency or the issue of Hamilton's eligibility to the office, nor does there appear to be any evidence that the language of eligibility that eventually became part of the Constitution would have actually served to disqualify him, or that his contemporaries would have understood it to have disqualified him.

Hamilton certainly did not meet the required standards for "natural born" citizenship, standards which were even more vague in the pre-Fourteenth Amendment context of a hypothetical Hamiltonian presidential campaign than they are today. The text of the first Congressional articulation of the naturalization power, the Naturalization Act of 1790, sheds some light on contemporary understandings of what made someone a "natural born citizen" in the absence of birth to citizen parents on American soil:

And the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond the sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural-born citizens: Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.

Hamilton's most likely avenue of qualification would have been as "a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution." This is not as straightforward an issue as it immediately seems. Despite Hamilton's lengthy service in the Continental Army, and his involvement as both a federal legislator under the Articles of Confederation as well as a New York State Assemblyman, the question of Hamilton's citizenship status at the time of the Constitution's adoption is complicated by the Articles of Confederation's approach to citizenship determinations. Unlike the Constitution, which unambiguously and exclusively delegated to Congress the power to "establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization [sic]" in Article I, Section 8, the Article of Confederation made no specific reference to naturalization or citizenship authority. This left the question of national citizenship up to determination by individual state governments, with no provision for uniformity. Each state was free to establish its own citizenship laws.

The New York State Constitution that would have been in effect during a hypothetical Hamiltonian presidential campaign, and throughout most of his term of residence in the state, is the New York Constitution of 1777. This document made no explicit reference to citizenship or naturalization standards, but did provide, in Article VII, that

every male inhabitant of full age, who shall have personally resided within one of the counties of this State for six months immediately preceding the day of election, shall, at such election, be entitled to vote for representatives of the said county in assembly; if, during the time aforesaid, he shall have been a freeholder, possessing a freehold of the value of twenty pounds, within the said county, or have rented a tenement therein of the yearly value of forty shillings, and been rated and actually paid taxes to this State: Provided always, That every person who now is a freeman of the city of Albany, or who was made a freeman of the city of New York on or before the fourteenth day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five, and shall be actually and usually resident in the said cities, respectively, shall be entitled to vote for representatives in assembly within his said place of residence.

Hamilton's status as a prominent New York politician, former state Assemblyman, longtime state resident, and his marriage into the prominent and influential New York Schuyler family sixteen years before his resignation from the office of Secretary of the Treasury, taken together, made challenging his status as a citizen of the State of New York, and accordingly as a citizen of the United States under the pre-Constitutional citizenship regime effectively impossible.

Origins and Motivations of the Eligibility Clause

The most overwhelming and persuasive evidence that the clause, as written, was not intended to specifically exclude Alexander Hamilton from the Presidency is the evidence that Hamilton himself is the original author of the substance of the clause. Historically, the origin of Article II, Section I, Clause IV, and specifically the "natural born citizen" clause therein, has been believed to be a letter from John Jay, written to George Washington and possibly also sent to other Convention delegates, which predated the language of the clause itself and which stated in part:

Permit me to hint, whether it would not be wise [...] to provide a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Command in chief of the american army shall not be given to, nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen.

However, a draft Constitution, written by Alexander Hamilton and submitted to the Convention over a month before the above letter, contains the following Presidential eligibility clause

No person shall be eligible to the office of President of the United States unless he be now a Citizen of one of the States, or hereafter be born a Citizen of the United States.

Had Hamilton had genuine plans to run for the Presidency in the future, it seems extremely unlikely that he would have suggested standards for presidential eligibility which would have excluded him from consideration, standards which were eventually fully adopted in substance, but for the addition of a residency and age requirement that Hamilton would have easily met. Likewise, if widespread concern existed among Convention delegates regarding the potential threat of a Hamiltonian presidency, it is similarly unlikely that they would have accepted without any siginificant opposition or debate standards to eligibility that did not exclude Hamilton and were in fact based on his own suggestions, especially when alterntive standards were available.

The best evidence against the theory that disqualification of Hamilton from the Presidency was, either partially or primarily, the goal intended by the eligibility passage of Article II, Section I, beyond the fact that its likely effectiveness at serving that goal would have been highly questionable, is the fact that modified constructions that would have served that goal without blatantly singling Hamilton out readily suggest themselves. Replacing the "grandfather clause" of Article II, Section I with an alternative requirement that a President must have been an American citizen or a pre-Constitutional (or pre-Revolutionary) British subject at the time of their birth would have disqualified Hamilton due to his birth location and the marital status of his parents [1840/AOSettlement] but left the Article II qualifications of every 18th and 19th century United States President securely intact. This hypothetical construction would have also served the additional purposes of excluding from the Presidency figures such as Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, another foreign-born American Revolutionary War veteran of great prominence and fame, and assuaging contemporary anxieties that the Constitutional Convention was sympathetic to or attempting to engineer an American monarchy involving European aristocrats. [cong testimony] [newspaper]

The lack of epistolary evidence of concerns regarding Hamilton as president, or specifically relating to efforts to render him constitutionally ineligible to the office, are far from conclusive evidence that no such concerns or motivations existed in the minds of Convention delegates. However, this lack of evidence, taken together with the origins of Article II, Section 1, Clause IV, and the apparent lack of effectiveness of that clause in disqualifying Hamilton from the presidency, is persuasive evidence that the language of Presidential eligibility that was included in the Constitution was not intended to prevent Hamilton from running for the office. While such concerns and desires may have existed among Convention delegates, the presidential eligibility clause of Article II was certainly not an attempt to turn these desires into the law of the land, or if it was, it was an entirely ineffective one.

-- WillHamilton - 15 Oct 2010

 

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r2 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:16:39 - IanSullivan
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