Various “birther” controversies have been with us a long time
Everyone agrees that people like Schwarzenegger, born in Austria, and Granholm, born in Canada, are not eligible to serve as president. Historically, however, controversies have arisen about several edge cases.
- When Chester A. Arthur acceded to the presidency in 1881 upon the assassination of James Garfield, there was some suggestion that he was potentially ineligible due to the theory that he was born in Canada, rather than Vermont. There was never any clear evidence that this was true, but in the face of conspiracy rumors, it may be hard to prove that a person isn't secretly Canadian.
- Later, during the 1916 presidential campaign, a Woodrow Wilson aide named Breckinridge Long argued that GOP nominee Charles Evans Hughes was ineligible to serve on the grounds that, at the time of his birth, his father was not an American citizen even though he was born in the United States.
- During George Romney’s short-lived 1968 presidential campaign, there was some discussion that he might be ineligible because even though his parents were American citizens, he was born in Mexico.
Note that even though these controversies relate to the same provision of the Constitution, they are raising distinct issues about qualification. And in recent history, we’ve seen examples of all three.
Obama was born in the United States to an American mother, but like Arthur, he’s been accused by conspiracy theorists of somehow faking his origins to obscure the “reality” that he was born in Kenya. John McCain was born in Panama while his father was stationed there on military duty, just as the Romney family was residing in Mexico when George Romney was born. Last but by no means least, Harris’s parents — like Hughes’s — were noncitizen immigrants at the time Harris was born.
The Obama/Arthur version of this has the structural characteristics of a conspiracy theory, while the other two do not. But the Hughes/Harris version of the argument, which the Newsweek editors insist is non-conspiratorial, is much more sweeping in its implication. The claim is not that Harris (or Hughes before her) pulled a fast one on the public, but that the children of immigrants are second-class citizens — “native born,” as Long put it rather than “natural born.”
But none of it has any basis in reality.