Perhaps no controversy in recent years illustrates more clearly the dismal state of American civics education than the controversy pertaining to Barack Obama’s birthplace. People who are woefully ignorant of Article 4, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States again are locked in mortal combat with people who are woefully ignorant of Article 2, Section 1 of the same document. The only good outcome that one can hope for in this struggle is that they both lose.
Let’s start with the birthers; after all, they started it. Birthers believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore is not a native born citizen, and not eligible to be elected President of the United States. Birthers have some highly circumstantial evidence on their side in the form of secondhand comments about a newborn Obama being held in his mother’s arms in Kenya. They also had, for a space of time, an argument from silence due to the lack of publicly available documentation of Obama’s U.S. birth. This argument eventually failed along two lines: first, because the argument from silence is a material fallacy (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence), and second because the evidence was, eventually, produced. The State of Hawaii has confirmed that Obama was born there and has furnished America with a certificate of live birth. With the release of that document, the birther movement seems to have suffered its final defeat among convincible Americans. Nevertheless, a few diehards still clench to the hope that Obama can be disqualified from office due to the fact that the Hawaiian document is a “Certificate of Live Birth,” as opposed to a Birth Certificate.
This is a sad state of affairs. It is always sad to see dispirited people floundering in desperation. Many of the birthers are the type of people who speak loudly and repeatedly about their fidelity to the Constitution. The problem is that the Constitution is against them. Article 4, Section 1 settles the matter:
"Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof."
In other words, it doesn’t matter how many times that right wing investigative reporters have “Kenya” stamped on their passports, or how many rumors they manage to publish in World Net Daily. Any official loyal to the Constitution has no choice but to take Hawaii’s word for it. States are required to give "full faith and credit" to other states. Under the Twelfth Amendment, the President is to be chosen by a college of "electors." Since these electors are emissaries of the states they are governed by the full faith and credit clause and must accept Hawaii’s documentation regarding one of her natives. In other words, this, like most other matters of legal status, is not a matter of endless, enervating debate. If certain citizens choose to ignore the evidence that Obama was born in the U.S., they are permitted to do so, but they are not permitted to hold the rest of us in their manic grasp. If we did not have such a legal mechanism to settle such disputes, states could routinely invalidate the election of politicians from disfavored sections of the country, by endlessly questioning the credentials of the candidate.
In other words, the matter is settled, even if Mr. Obama’s status is not apodictically certain. After all, how many such matters are? Was I born in the Easton Area Hospital in 1962? I have a birth certificate and my mother’s word for it, but nothing else. Marriages, driver’s licenses, all of these matters are handled by paperwork, not through searching metaphysical inquiry.
This is a lesson for the other side, too. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has made a habit of asking Republicans who appear on his program whether they are sure that Obama was born in the United States. Of course, they are not sure. How could they be? How could they be sure that Chris Matthews, much less Barack Obama, was born in the United States? The evidence for Mr. Obama’s native status is no more, nor any less, than the evidence of most of ours – Mom’s word and a piece of paper.
But the anti-birthers suffer from some knowledge gaps of their own. Many Obama supporters have pointed repeatedly to what they call the ‘xenophobia’ of the birther movement, tying it in with nativists and other politically bigoted historic movements. This group holds Americans to be too ‘parochial’ and ‘provincial,’ criticizing us of being insufficiently well-traveled and cosmopolitan in outlook. This group (let’s call them ‘earthers’) seems to feel that having an international point of view is an inherent advantage over a domestic one. It extols Senator Kerry’s multilingualism and time spent in French Brittany. It looked down upon Mr. Bush’s and Mrs. Palin’s rather limited travel itinerary. Obama , having lived in Indonesia, would help us to bridge the gap between the Western and Muslim worlds, they told us, just as they had told us before that the Francophile Kerry would be able to reset the relationship with our European allies.
All of this ignores the fact that the founders themselves required U.S. birth for a reason: precisely to avoid someone with an international point of view. Article 2, Section 1 is as follows:
"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."
The debate surrounding Article 2, Section 1, was not about whether to restrict the presidency to the native born, but whether to make an exception to the heroes of the revolution who had come from foreign countries. The founders compromised by creating a 14-year transition period. According to Joseph Story, the leading constitutional scholar of the era, the idea of restricting office to the native born was decidedly uncontroversial; the point was to exclude foreign influence. The framers wanted the President to have a monofocally American point of view. Washington reflected this point of view in his farewell address when he warned Americans against permanent alliances with other countries. He saw the fracturing of the body politic between the somewhat pro-English Adams faction and the fanatically pro-French Mr. Jefferson. America got no advantage from the fact that Mr. Jefferson, its third president, travelled widely and came to think of France as his second home. This cosmopolitan vision gave the republic its first genuine threat of dissolution in the fractious election of 1800.
There is nothing xenophobic about concerns regarding Mr. Obama’s birthplace, anymore than there would be something juveno-phobic if a movement had developed which questioned his age. The problem with the birthers is not that they allegedly hold a certain skepticism about foreign born men in the White House. After all, the founders gave us that point of view. They problem with the birthers is that Mr. Obama was born here and has proven such to any open-minded citizen, and to the full satisfaction of the Constitutional standard.
The problem with the earthers is that they reject the philosophy bequeathed to us by the framing generation, namely American exceptionalism. We are different from the rest of the world, and although we welcome immigrants more openly than any other great power in history, we withhold one privilege from them--the office which, in a single person, most embodies the will of the American people: the Presidency of the United States. If eathers don’t like that wee bit of suspicion towards foreign lands, they shouldn’t take it up with birthers or with Palin, they should take it up with James Madison and George Washington, from whom it originally came. We’ll see who wins that debate.