He's Not My President?

Thoreau: "Government is Best Which Governs Least"

Natural Born Citizen — Chapter 5: Minor v. Happersett

Citizenship case before women’s suffrage

Minor v. Happersett was an 1872 case originating in Missouri brought by Virginia Minor who applied to Happersett (whom held the office of  Register of Voters at the time) to be a registered voter in the general election to be held in November of that year.[i]  This case preceded Women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment which was not ratified until 1920.[ii]  The case was referred to the United States Supreme Court.  Because the case included supposed rights obtained via the 14th Amendment by a female wishing to vote, the opinion by the Supreme Court Justices broached the subject of a wide range of citizenship issues. 

The court first attempted to determine who were citizens of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.  In the opinion written by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court such citizens were defined as follows:

Whoever, then, was one of the people of either of these States when the Constitution of the United States was adopted, became ipso facto a citizen-a member of the nation created by its adoption. He was one of the persons associating together to form the nation, and was, consequently, one of its original citizens. As to this there has never been a doubt. Disputes have arisen as to whether or not certain persons or certain classes of persons were part of the people at the time, but never as to their citizenship if they were. [iii]

Interestingly enough, even though this case did not require the justices to determine whether or not someone was a natural born citizen, the court made reference to natural born citizens.  The Chief Justice’s opinion entertained the following on the issue of natural born citizens:

The Constitution does not, in words, say who shall be natural-born citizens. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that. 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 [88 U.S. 162, 168]   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. The words ‘all children’ are certainly as comprehensive, when used in this connection, as ‘all persons,’ and if females are included in the last they must be in the first. That they are included in the last is not denied. In fact the whole argument of the plaintiffs proceeds upon that idea.[iv] (Emphasis added)

It is a seminal point in this opinion when the Justice states:

“Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their [88 U.S. 162, 168]   parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first.” [v] 

Since this case references the 14th Amendment and therefore obviously follows the 14th Amendment, the precedent set here seems to indicate three crucial facts:

  1. Affirmation that the Constitution does not, in words, say who shall be natural-born citizens. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that, and 
  2. That there is no dispute that children born in the United States to parents that are U.S. citizens are natural born citizens, and 
  3. Children that are born in the United States without reference to the citizenship of their parents are not without doubt citizens.

Remember, the courts should always seek to be as clear as is possible in their language within their writings as settled cases set precedent for cases that follow.  The Justices in this case clearly state the three critical points noted above in the case before them which occurred after the passage of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

Surprisingly (and I say surprisingly as a female), the conclusion of this case did not grant the appellant, Virginia Minor, suffrage rights.  The court argued that:

If the right of suffrage is one of the necessary privileges of a citizen of the United States, then the constitution and laws of Missouri confining it to men are in violation of the Constitution of the United States, as amended, and consequently void. The direct question is, therefore, presented whether all citizens are necessarily voters. [vi] 

The court concluded the following:

Being unanimously of the opinion that the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one, and that the constitutions and laws of the several States which commit that important trust to men alone are not necessarily void, we

AFFIRM THE JUDGMENT.[vii]

The ruling is important to our discussion in that it did not grant additional rights via the 14th Amendment to citizens of the United States.  In essence, it did not allow the 14th Amendment to be in contradiction with the original holdings of the U.S. Constitution.  With respect to our discussion, unless so stated it would appear that the 14th Amendment cannot change the understanding of natural born citizen known in the original text of the U.S. Constitution. 

The justices further argued in the case of suffrage:

We have given this case the careful consideration its importance demands. If the law is wrong, it ought to be changed; but the power for that is not with us.[viii]

In fact, it took another 48 years before the Constitution was amended and women were granted the right of suffrage.  Times change, societal norms evolve, new injustices are found, but the answer has always been to adhere to the Constitution, and, when applicable, to change it through the amendment process to update it to modern times.

As the Chief Justice in this case pointed out a definition of natural born citizen had yet to be determined.  Taking his thoughts along the lines of suffrage, we might also argue that if natural born citizen is ultimately defined as a person born on U.S. soil to U.S. citizen parents is wrong in that the law is wrong, it should not be argued that the law should not be upheld, but rather if the law is producing some sort of injustice then it should be changed.  In the case of the Constitution that provision would need to be changed through the Amendment process.

But it seems that we still do not know definitively what natural born citizen means.  At the time the case of Minor v. Happersett was argued in 1872, the justices claimed that there remained doubts as to whether or not a person born on U.S. soil without regard to their parents’ citizenship were natural born citizens.  The matter remains in question, but there is yet another subsequent case (U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark) that proponents for Barack Obama’s affirmative status as a natural born citizen rely upon which will be the subject of our next chapter.


[i] Cornell University Law School’s Supreme Court collection — http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0088_0162_ZS.html

[ii] Cornell University Online Constitution — http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.amendmentxix.html

[iii] Findlaw.com – U.S. Supreme Court Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1872) — http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=88&invol=162

[iv] Findlaw.com – U.S. Supreme Court Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1872) — http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=88&invol=162

[v] Findlaw.com – U.S. Supreme Court Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1872) — http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=88&invol=162

[vi] Findlaw.com – U.S. Supreme Court Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1872) — http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=88&invol=162

[vii] Findlaw.com – U.S. Supreme Court Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1872) — http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=88&invol=162

[viii] Findlaw.com – U.S. Supreme Court Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1872) — http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=88&invol=162

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Written by KJ Kaufman

August 13, 2009 at 6:34 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I’ve got an idea. Lets tell the media that Sarah Palin’s father wasn’t a citizen until after she was born. That’s how we can get them into a frenzy trying to find out what a nbc is. 🙂

    yo

    August 21, 2009 at 11:43 am

  2. I am interested in this statement “This case preceded Women’s suffrage and the 20th Amendment which was not ratified until 1933.”
    It is my understanding that it was the 19th amendment ratified in 1920 ” The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” that allowed women the right to vote. [Editor: Thank you so much for catching this. You are absolutely correct; 19th Amendment, 1920. I have corrected the chapter.]

    Am I misunderstanding the intent of your statement?

    Another question I have: In regards to the court’s ruling of affirming the judgment of the lower courts even though they deemed it unconstitutional, Was this ruling because of section 2 of the 14th amendment where it gives to right to vote to all “male” inhabitants…? [Editor: I’m not sure that I fully understand your question, but this case pointed out that it was not in contradiction with the Constitution that a female who was a citizen of the United States still did not possess the Constitutional right to vote. Although the court stated that this circumstance may seem unfair, the only remedy was to Amend the Constitution granting voting rights to female citizens.

    Nanajan

    October 19, 2009 at 6:35 pm


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