The United States Constitution reads: Article II, Section 1.  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; …
The intended meaning of those words has been misunderstood for more than 180 years because of three commas. The misunderstanding took root because all of the first five Presidents were Founding Fathers: George Washington (two terms: 1789 – 1797), John Adams (1797 – 1801, who was also George Washington’s Vice President for two terms), Thomas Jefferson (two terms: 1801 – 1809, who was also John Adams’ Vice President), James Madison (two terms: 1809 – 1817), and James Monroe (two terms: 1817 – 1825). By the time John Adams’ son John Quincy Adams became the sixth President in 1825, most of the Founding Fathers had already died. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died soon thereafter on the same day, July 4, 1826, within hours of each other (Adams at age 90 and Jefferson at age 83). James Madison was the last Founding Father to die; he died in 1836 at age 85 — almost 49 years after he signed the U.S. Constitution.
The Founding Fathers were intelligent men — many were brilliant, and all were educated in grammar, punctuation, and the various sentence constructs of the English language. The Framers who actually wrote the Constitution were certainly thought to be both articulate and especially skilled in writing by the others. Because the presidency was filled by Founding Fathers throughout the first 36 years of the Nation’s history, the intentions of the U.S. Constitution’s Article II, Section 1. , were not issues of concern during the years when an easy clarification could have been had. Consequently, we are now left to the rules of the English language to find correct understanding.
In writing, commas are used to reorganize the clauses of a plain sentence for some effect. If correct understanding is ever disputed, commas force a reader to put back in order the hidden "plain sentence" to discover the sentence’s true meaning.
In this case, the reconstructed plain sentence is one of two possibilities:
1. No person except a natural born Citizen shall be eligible to the Office of President at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, or a Citizen of the United States; …
2. No person except a natural born Citizen at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution or a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President; …
Possibility #1 is an awkward sentence. Furthermore, it wrongly implies through the word "or" used after a comma that "a Citizen of the United States" is only defined as "a natural born Citizen," which is not true according to the law.
Possibility #2 does not require the use of commas. Also, it reads well and is articulate. The key word "or" is not used to restate more simply what was previously stated, but is instead correctly used to describe a different group of people who are eligible for consideration.
Certainly, Possibility #2 reveals the true intentions of the Framers, which is that any person who is "a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President."
Therefore, both California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (a Republican who was born in Austria in 1947 and who became a U.S. citizen in 1983) and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (a Democrat who was born in Canada in 1959 and who became a U.S. citizen in 1980) are eligible to the Office of President of the United States according to a correct understanding of the Constitution. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not understand the correct use of commas.
Consistent with the intentions of the Framers, the Constitution could be restated:
No person except (either) a natural born Citizen at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution or a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President; …
Because no one now living could possibly be in the first eligible group, a simpler restatement that would be consistent with the intentions of the Framers would read:
No person except a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President; …
Steven A. Sylwester
October 25, 2009