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An Immigrant in the White House? But Will It Be Arnold?

by Andrew M. Schocket on Mar 10, 2004

Andrew M. Schocket

Proponents of a new Constitutional amendment want to change the presidency in reference to one man, but they should be careful what they wish for.

In order to become president of the United States, the Constitution stipulates that a person must be at least 35 years old, have spent the past 14 years in the country and have been born on American soil. Recently, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and other Republican leaders have advocated the passage of a praiseworthy constitutional amendment allowing foreign-born citizens living in United States for at least 20 years to be eligible for the presidency.

The proposal seems motivated by one man’s chances to become president: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born actor and popular Republican governor of California. It would not be the first time the constitutional definition of the presidency was written in reference to one man but, like any such policy, the amendment might have unintended consequences.

From the first, the presidency was designed by men with one foot in political theory and the other in politics. When the delegates to the constitutional convention, meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, discussed the concept of a presidency, they had one man in mind: the chairman of the convention, former Continental Army commander-in-chief George Washington, who didn’t speak much, but was much talked about.

The Framers shaped a strong presidency, one with the authority to veto bills, to command the armed forces, to appoint judges, and to make treaties. They also knew that Washington would be the first president, and that the voters would support a constitution granting such powers to a man everyone trusted not to abuse them. Devising the presidency with General Washington in mind turned out to be a wise choice: President Washington set strong and apt precedents for his successors.

Washington was not the only individual the Framers had in mind. One particular clause in the Constitution bears an eerie resemblance to the current proposal. To be eligible for the nation’s highest office a man had to be 35 years old, and be born in America or — and here’s the fascinating part — a citizen of the United States when the Constitution was ratified.

Why the loophole? It described only one man at the convention: Alexander Hamilton. Like Schwarzenegger, Hamilton had been born elsewhere, in his case on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Though the nation’s first secretary of the treasury and the main man behind the formation of the Federalist political party, Hamilton never became president; his clause essentially died with him when he was shot in a duel in 1803.

But the currently proposed amendment would apply forward in perpetuity, and that’s the rub. Just as the presidency was designed in the hope that certain men would gain the office, it has also been changed out of fear. Disregarding Washington’s long-standing precedent of retiring after two terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt gained election four consecutive times, resulting in a Democratic hold on the office from 1933 to 1949, when his Democratic successor, Harry S. Truman, began a fifth Democratic term.

Because of the inherent dangers of anyone holding power so long and to forestall the possibility of another such Democratic run, Americans in general and Republicans in particular worked to pass the 22nd Amendment. Ratified in 1951, it forbids a president to serve a third term.

But the very next year, a widely popular World War II general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, decided to run for the presidency as a Republican. By his second term, many Americans and especially Republicans began to rue their support of Amendment XXII because they knew that Ike would have won at least a third term. Still, the amendment provides a necessary restraint against one president serving indefinitely.

Judged without regard to current politics, the currently proposed amendment also holds great merit: given that naturalized citizens otherwise have the same rights and responsibilities as natural-born citizens, it seems only right that they should have the opportunity to run for the presidency. Naturalized citizens have served the United States as legislators, governors, generals and cabinet members. Certainly one could serve honorably as president.

Just as some Republicans came to regret the 22nd Amendment, never expecting it to come back to haunt them, the same could be true of the current proposal. Today, as governor of the nation’s most populous state and as an internationally famous actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most politically promising foreign-born candidate on the presidential horizon.

But as many frontrunners find out to their chagrin, that horizon is never far away. The Republicans could be setting up the candidacy of Democrat Jennifer Granholm, the popular, Canadian-born governor of Michigan!

Andrew M. Schocket is author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” and director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.