Minor v Happersett Gave No “Definition” for “Natural Born Citizen.”

The claim’s been made that the 1875 Supreme Court case of Minor v Happersett established a “binding precedent” as to the “definition” of “natural born citizen,” and that that definition requires two citizen parents, plus birth on US soil.

In Part One, we saw that this cannot possibly be the case, because the very minimal mention that the Court made of natural born citizenship simply is not the stuff that a “binding precedent” is made of.

But it’s worse than that — much worse.

For starters, Mario Apuzzo claims that the Court, in its brief comment, created a “definition” of “natural born citizen.”

Reason #2 that the Birthers’ “Binding Precedent” Claim Is Clearly False: A Statement that Someone Is a Member of a Group Is Not a “Definition.”

Here is the statement that Apuzzo claims constitutes a “definition” of “natural born citizen.”

At common-law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives, or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners. Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case it is not necessary to solve these doubts. It is sufficient for everything we have now to consider that all children born of citizen parents within the jurisdiction are themselves citizens.

Leo Donofrio and Mario Apuzzo take the comment that “it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives, or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners,” and claim that this constitutes a definition.

The first thing to note here is the phrase, “These were natives, or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners.”

So the Court tells us what the alternative is to a natural-born citizen: It’s an alien. It’s a foreigner.

Donofrio and Apuzzo tell us there is some middle creature: a person who is born a citizen, but who is not a “natural born” citizen.

The Court lists the alternatives, and that’s not one of them.

You are either a native, a natural-born citizen — OR you are an alien, a foreigner.

So the Court pretty strongly intimates here that there is no such thing as the type of person Donofrio and Apuzzo are claiming exists.

Apuzzo and Donofrio also brush off the words that follow:

Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case it is not necessary to solve these doubts. It is sufficient for everything we have now to consider that all children born of citizen parents within the jurisdiction are themselves citizens.

They claim that because the Court said, “Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents,” instead of saying, “Some authorities go further and include as natural born citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents,” they thereby made a statement that such children were not “natural born” citizens.

The claim is nonsense, and we’ll get around to examining that as well. But one thing at a time. For now, I want to note:

A statement that “children born in a country of parents who are citizens, are natural-born citizens”

is not a “definition” of the term “natural born citizen.”

It is simply a statement that such children are known to be a members of this particular group of people.

Are there any other members? We don’t know, from that single statement. It doesn’t tell us.

Here are one or two similar examples.

“The people are on the Forbes 400 list are very wealthy individuals.”

Have we just created a definition of “very wealthy individuals?” No. We’ve simply made a statement that the Forbes 400 are members of that particular group of people. Are there other “very wealthy individuals?” There may be. Our one statement doesn’t tell us.

In this case, it turns out that every single member of the Forbes 400 is a billionaire. But you don’t have to be a billionaire in order to be a “very wealthy individual.” Someone with “only” $200 million is definitely a very wealthy individual.

So there are other members of the group of people known as “very wealthy individuals,” who are not on the Forbes 400 list.

“Angelina Jolie is a natural born citizen.”

Have we created a definition of “natural born citizen”? No. We’ve simply made a statement that Angelina Jolie is one. Are there other natural born citizens? There may be. Our one statement doesn’t tell us.

And of course, it turns out that there are other natural born citizens besides Angelina Jolie. Hundreds of millions of them, in fact.

It is therefore clear, just from the plain English, that the statement made by the Court is not a “definition” of “natural born citizen.”

The Court simply never said, “A natural born citizen is someone who…”

Since the Court never spelled out any definition in the first place, then the claim that Minor v Happersett supposedly created a “binding precedent” as to the supposed definition of a natural born citizen, is absolutely false.

So far, we’ve seen that the birther claim is false because there was no binding precedent.

And we’ve seen that it’s false because there’s no definition.

But believe it or not, it gets still worse.

Plain English and plain logic both show that the claim is false. We’ll continue with plain English in Part Three.

This entry was posted in Answering Critics, Conclusions, Natural Born Citizen. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Minor v Happersett Gave No “Definition” for “Natural Born Citizen.”

  1. Pingback: Minor v Happersett and “Natural Born Citizen” | Investigating the Obama Birth Certificate Mystery

  2. Ed says:

    Mr. Woodman,

    If the citizenship of the parents did not matter when it comes to establishing natural born citizenship as you seem to suggest, then a child born in the US to two illegal immigrants who sneaked into this country to give birth would be a natural born citizen and eligible to run for president.

    Would you consider an “anchor baby” to be a natural born citizen?

    • John Woodman says:


      This is such an excellent question.

      As a matter of policy, I don’t like the idea of anchor babies.

      Our present policy is to extend citizenship to all persons born in the USA (with only a few exceptions), including those born to temporary visitors and illegal aliens. Could we, by an act of Congress, exclude anchor babies from natural born citizenship? Some authorities think we can. Others seem to think that Congress can’t do that, at least without a clarifying Constitutional amendment. There is some evidence that the Senate, at least, briefly considered the question of children born to temporary visitors:

      Senator Wade: The Senator from Maine suggests to me, in an undertone, that persons may be born in the United States and yet not be citizens of the United States. Most assuredly they would be citizens of the United States unless they went to another country and expatriated themselves, if they could do so by being adopted in that other country by some process of naturalization that I know nothing about; for I believe the countries of Europe — certainly it is so in England — have always held that a person born within the realm cannot expatriate himself and become a citizen of any other country or owe allegiance to any other country. I think, then, the first section of my amendment covers the whole ground.

      Senator FESSENDEN: Suppose a person is born here of parents from abroad temporarily in this country.

      Senator WADE: The Senator says a person may be born here and not be a citizen. I know that is so in one instance, in the case of the children of foreign ministers who reside “near” the United States, in the diplomatic language. By a fiction of law such persons are not supposed to be residing here, and under that fiction of law their children would not be citizens of the United States, although born in Washington. I agree to that, but my answer to the suggestion is that that is a simple matter, for it could hardly be applicable to more than two or three or four persons; and it would be best not to alter the law for that case. I will let it come under that well-known maxim of the law, de minimis lex non curat. It would make no difference in the result.

      I think it better to put this question beyond all doubt and all cavil by a very simple process, such as is the language of the first section of the amendment I have offered. I do not know that the corresponding section reported by the committee would leave the matter very doubtful; but that which I have proposed is beyond all doubt and all cavil now and hereafter, and it is as easy to adopt it as it is the other. I regard it as an improvement, and therefore I think it ought to be adopted.

      As to whether at present an “anchor baby” is a natural born citizen, I would say that would be a question for the Supreme Court to answer, in the unlikely event that it should arise. I don’t pretend to know what they would decide.

  3. TurtleShroom says:

    Your arguments are as captivating as the opponent’s.

    As Obama would have said, I have “evolved” in my position on the Obama birther cases. It changed because I learned the definition of “natural-born citizen” has never been concretely and totally defined either by the Constitution, by Congress, or by the Supreme Court. Nods, as in the Minor case here, throw huge globs of white into the black of a definition. We can not determine what is and what is not a natural-born citizen either way.
    It seems that this has never been fully addressed, because it has never been needed.

    Before the delayed release of his birth certificate, I questioned his entire allegiance in general.
    When he released the “certificate of live birth”, I concluded that he was a citizen. When I read his “long form certiticate”, I declared to myself that Obama is a citizen, reaffirming my beliefs prior. Let me repeat: I believe that Barack Hussein Obama II is a citizen of the United States of America.

    Any serious challenger to Obama’s eligibility has learned to differentiate the citizenship of the President from the natural-born citizenship of the President.

    HERE is where the new class of dissent has risen. The legal challenges now running the gauntlet of the judiciary are not questioning his America citizenship. Obama is an American citizen. Period.
    What they are questioning is if he is a natural-born citizen, and in this case, I am still deciding on that.

    Personally, the fact that “natural-born citizen” has been given reference in SCOTUS as it has been in this very instance tips the scales more to the challengers of his eligibility than you, because, as this article is written, you are defending the attack.

    I can not fully agree with your statement, but it certainly strengthens and fuels my fascination with this legal technicality that has dogged Obama for ages.

    Obama is a citizen. Is he a natural-born citizen? Therein is the question.

    This is a well-written article that breaks down arguments and attempts to rebuke them. In the interest of fair and balanced research, here is a rightists’ link from a site questioning Obama’s decision, which also argues some decent points. I encourage you to research this thoroughly.

    Here is a rightist article that exclusively cites Minor on the argument of Obama’s eligibility as a natural-born citizen, before delving into a few other cases with nods to it: http://beforeitsnews.com/story/1454/078/Finally:_The_United_States_Supreme_Court_Has_Ruled_That_Obama_Is_Ineligible_To_Serve_As_President..html

    This article goes further and first states the importance of a natural-born citizen, and then actually displays a picture of Barack Obama I’s legal immigration/Alien Registration Card from what we today call ICE.

    Of course, it declares Minor as a “binding” precedent for a natural-born citizen instead of a nod to it, but it’s still an interesting read.

    • John Woodman says:


      Thanks for the comments. But it’s all the same stuff that has been debunked many times over. As shown in this series of articles, Minor v Happersett gave no definition; and even if it had it would’ve been overruled by US v Wong Kim Ark which clearly established that a child born on US soil even of non-citizen parents is a natural born citizen. Courts that have ruled on the issue have understood this clearly.

    • Van Irion and the Liberty Legal Foundation are about to find out the cost of bringing a frivolous case into the courts in Tennessee (now removed to Federal District Court). First, their legal arguments citing Minor v Happersett are baseless and frivolous. Second they tried naming a sham organization called the “National Democratic Party USA”, which was actually formed by the Tennessee Republican Party, as a defendant. They hoped to get a default judgment for publicity purposes. The real Democratic party saw through the scheme and has filed a motion to dismiss and ask for costs and fees. They have a good chance of winning all around.

      The “Before It’s News” article says the Court quoted the Vattel passage in The Venus case. What they do not tell you is that the quote comes from the dissenting opinion of Chief Justice John Marshall and not from the majority opinion by written by Bushrod Washington (George’s nephew). Also, The Venus case did not deal with natural born citizenship anyway. The claimants in the case were naturalized Americans.

      This is just another example of how desperate the Birther’s are to invent a case when none exists.

      • John Woodman says:

        I’m at the point where I’d be happy to see more of these folks fined and sanctioned for bringing frivolous cases.

        The issue has been heard, it’s been explored to the depths of about as far as it can possibly go, and it is simply and totally without merit, and totally based on large volumes of clear misinterpretations and outright lies. There really is no good excuse for people filing these lawsuits at this point.

    • gorefan says:

      You should read the case of Wong Kim Ark. It provides a better definition.


      Read both the majority opinion and the dissenting opinion.

      And if you really wish to learn about the case read the appellee and appellant briefs.

    • John Woodman says:

      I definitely recommend reading cases in their entirety (and in this case it is informative to see what the dissent understood the ruling to mean). One thing you will never ever get from the birthers is context. The other thing is the truth.

      If you want the extremely short version, though, the very brief essence of the finding of the court, I can recommend this article.

      • gorefan says:

        In the Appellant brief, the Government said that the question before the court was,

        “The question presented by this appeal may be thus stated: Is a person born within the United States of alien parents domiciled therein a citizen thereof by the fact of his birth? The appellant maintains the negative, and in that behalf assigns as error the ruling of the district court that the respondent is a natural-born citizen.

        Except the district court never used the term “natural born” to describe Wong Kim Ark.

        “From the law as announced and the facts as stipulated, I am of opinion that Wong Kim Ark is a citizen of the United States within the meaning of the citizenship clause of the fourteen amendment” Judge Morrow, District Court, Northern District of California

  4. Patrick says:

    Natural born citizen simply means anyone who acquires their citizenship at birth, needing to take no additional measures to acquire or perfect their citizenship.

    As ruled in the United States v. Wong Kim Ark, a child born in the U.S., even to aliens, is a natural born citizen.

    Obama’s natural born citizenship has never been in doubt. The fact that a small segment of dishonest people attempt to create confusion as to what is meant by the definition of natural born citizen does not mean there is a legitimate question.

    Like John Woodman, I am not at all comfortable with “anchor babies,” nor the birth tourism trade. However, that is a problem that needs to be addressed, not denied with distortions as to the clear definition of a term that has been defined.

    “Natural born,” like many other undefined terms in the Constitution — including habeas corpus, bill of attainder, high crimes and misdeamors, militia and eminent domain — originate in English common law. The framers of the Constitution — 30 of the 55 delegates were lawyers, and, prior to the Declaration of Independence, all were colonists, hence British subjects — were intimately familiar with English common law. This is why various Court rulings, including Minor v. Happersett and United States v Wong Kim Ark, resort to common law when it comes to defining this term.

    The Supreme Court, when deciding Wong Kim Ark, did an in-depth study as to the origins and meaning of “natural born,” and they discovered two important facts: 1) natural born refers to anyone who has citizenship at birth; and 2) someone born in the jurisdiction, even to aliens, is natural born (unless born to hostile invaders or foreign diplomats). Everyone else is natural born.

    Having determined that when determining the meaning behind undefined terms like “natural born citizen,” the Constitution “must be determined in light of the common law,” the Court ruled that a child born in the U.S. even to non-citizens (as Wong Kim Ark was), is a natural born citizen.

    By conceding that Obama is a citizen at birth, you are conceding that he is a natural born citizen. That is what the term “natural born citizen” means.

  5. Jeanette says:

    “Although those Americans who acquire their citizenship under statutes conferring citizenship on the foreign-born children of citizens are not popularly thought of as naturalized citizens, the use of the word “naturalize” in this way has a considerable constitutional history. Congress is empowered by the Constitution to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” Art. I, § 8. Anyone acquiring citizenship solely under the exercise of this power is, constitutionally speaking, a naturalized citizen.”

    “1 Stat. 103, 104. This provision is the earliest form of the statute under which Bellei acquired his citizenship. Its enactment as part of a “Rule of Naturalization” shows, I think, that the First Congress conceived of this and most likely all other purely statutory grants of citizenship as forms or varieties of naturalization.”

    ” All means of obtaining American citizenship which are dependent upon a congressional enactment are forms of naturalization.”

    Rogers v. Bellei – 401 U.S. 815 (1971)

    Congressional enactments include the 14th Amendment, the US Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the US Immigration Code (Title 8 of the CFR).
    Any other citizenship is necessarily natural born citizenship.
    (Hint: All that is left is being born in the country to citizen parents.)

    • John Woodman says:


      The 14th Amendment IS the Constitution. The provision that stated those born on US soil were citizens was also declaratory of the law as it already existed. That was the understanding of those in Congress who introduced it.

      There’s a lot here on the legal, Constitutional and historical meaning of “natural born citizen.” I would recommend you read it all, if possible. See the site guide among the items in the right-hand column.

    • nbc says:

      Congressional enactments include the 14th Amendment

      Nope Amendments are not congressional enactments. But the 14th Amendment merely reflected common law practice anyway.

      Birth on soil, was the common law of our Nation. It is really not that hard when you read the actual literature and US v WKA.

      Schneider v Rusk

      We start from the premise that the rights of citizenship of the native born and of the naturalized person are of the same dignity and are coextensive. The only difference drawn by the Constitution is that only the “natural born” citizen is eligible to be President. Art. II, § 1.

      In Luria v. United States, 231 U. S. 9, 22 (1913), the Court also found

      These are reciprocal obligations, one being a compensation for the other. Under our Constitution, a naturalized citizen stands on an equal footing with the native citizen in all respects, save that of eligibility to the Presidency. Minor v. Happersett, 21 Wall. 162, 165; Elk v. Wilkins, 112 U.S. 94, 101;Osborn v. Bank, 9 Wheat. 738, 827.

      Diaz-Salazar v. INS, 700 F.2d 1156 (7th Cir. 1983) (child born in US to Mexican citizen is “natural born citizen” of US): “

      Petitioner, Sebastian Diaz-Salazar, entered the United States illegally [from Mexico] in 1974 and has been living and working in Chicago since that time. *** The relevant facts which have been placed before the INS, BIA, and this court can be summarized as follows: The petitioner has a wife and two children under the age of three in Chicago; the children are natural-born citizens of the United States.”


      “Mr. POAGE. Isn’t that based on the constitutional provision that all persons born in the United States are citizens thereof?

      “Mr. FLOURNOY. Yes.

      “Mr. POAGE. In other words, it is not a matter we have any control over.

      “Mr. FLOURNOY. No; and no one wants to change that.

      “Mr. POAGE. No one wants to change that, of course.

      “Mr. FLOURNOY. We have control over citizens born abroad, and we also have control over the question of expatriation. We can provide for expatriation. No one proposes to change the constitutional provisions.

    • What JW and nbc said; the 14th Amendment is the Constitution. Nice try though.

      Rogers v Bellei is an interesting case, however. I am surprised that Fred Hollander didn’t cite it in his complaint against John McCain in Hollander v McCain. It could have made that case a little more interesting but the case would have failed on standing grounds regardless.

    • Thomas Brown says:

      People born here with one or zero citizen parents have never needed to go through a Naturalization process. Never. As in: never. The two-citizen-parent thing is a big clown hammer made out of upholstery foam that the Birfers have constructed to beat Obama over the head with. It is not Law. It is not the Constitution. It is not the Will of the Sacred Founders. And it will never knock him out, no matter how many times it is wielded. All it will ever do is make the person wielding it look like a clown.

      It is bullcrap. It’s not going anywhere, and next year it’ll be gone.

    • Ballantine says:

      Jeanette might want to look to the sentence before the one she quoted in Rogers v. Bellei :

      “As shown in Wong Kim Ark, naturalization, when used in its constitutional sense, is a generic term describing and including within its meaning all those modes of acquiring American citizenship other than birth in this country.”

      Or two sentences earlier:

      “Every person born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof becomes at once a citizen of the United States, and needs no naturalization.”

      Are there any birthers who have more than a 5th grade reading level?

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