What are the constitutional requirements and qualifications to serve as president of the United States? Forget the nerves of steel, the charisma, the background and skill set, the fund-raising network,and the legions of loyal folks who agree with your stance on all the issues. Just to get into the game, you have to ask: How old are you and where were you born?
The U.S. Constitution
Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution imposes only three eligibility requirements on persons serving as president, based on the officeholder’s age, time of residency in the U.S., and citizenship status:
"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."
These requirements have been modified twice. Under the 12th Amendment, the same three qualifications were applied to the vice president of the United States. The 22nd Amendment limited office holders to two terms as president.
The Founders on the President
Having lived much of their lives under the autocratic rule of British kings, America’s Founders Fathers, the Framers of the Constitution, feared a form of government that allowed one person to have too much authority or control. The predecessor of the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had not even provided for an executive branch. However, this and other inherent weaknesses of the Articles convinced the Framers of the need for a strong central government.
To a great extent, the fact that U.S. presidents are limited in both power and time in office can be attributed to George Washington. Called back from retirement as the beloved hero of the Revolutionary War, first to chair the Constitutional Convention and then to serve as the first president, Washington could easily have held the office for life. Alexander Hamilton argued that the president should serve for life, removable only through impeachment by Congress. John Adams went even further, advocating for the president to be addressed as “His Majesty.”
While Washington himself had no desire for absolute power, he was worried that future presidents might not share his values. Seeing his fellow revolutionaries, who mere years earlier had thrown off the English king at great cost, now willing to anoint him as a new monarch, Washington set a precedent by resigning from the presidency after serving eight years. When told that Washington was going to resign, King George III of England said “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
For guidance, Hamilton, Madison, and the other framers analyzed the histories of democracies since antiquity to identify what had led to their demise. They concluded that excessive political factionalism and the rise of corruption, incompetence, and demagoguery on the part of the executive were usually at fault. “Remember, democracy never lasts long,” Adams wrote. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” The American solution, as reflected in the Constitution, is an executive powerful enough to be effective but checked enough to prevent tyranny. In a 1788 letter to Marquis de Lafayette, Washington wrote of the American presidency, “It will at least be a recommendation to the proposed constitution that it is provided with more checks and barriers against the introduction of tyranny … than any government hitherto instituted among mortals hath possessed.”
In setting the minimum age of 35 for serving as president, compared to 30 for senators and 25 for representatives, the framers of the Constitution implemented their belief that the person holding the nation’s highest elected office should be a person of maturity and experience. As early Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted, the "character and talent" of a middle-aged person are "fully developed," allowing them a greater opportunity to have experienced “public service” and to have served “in the public councils.”
The median age of U.S. presidents when taking office is 55 years and 3 months. This was exactly the age of 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson when he was first inaugurated onboard board Air Force One on November 22, 1963, hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The youngest person to become president through the process of presidential succession was Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded to the office at the age of 42 years and 322 days, after the assassination of William McKinley on September 14, 1901. The youngest to be elected president was John F. Kennedy, who was 43 years and 236 days old at his inauguration on January 20, 1961. The oldest person to be elected president so far is Joe Biden, who will be 78 years and 61 days old when inaugurated on January 20, 2021.
While a member of Congress need only be an “inhabitant” of the state he or she represents, the president must have been a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years. The Constitution, however, is vague on this point. For example, it does not make clear whether those 14 years need to be consecutive or the precise definition of residency. On this, Justice Story wrote, "by 'residence,' in the Constitution, is to be understood, not an absolute inhabitancy within the United States during the whole period; but such an inhabitancy, as includes a permanent domicile in the United States."
In order to be eligible to serve as president, a person must either have been born on U.S. soil or (if born overseas) to at least one parent who is a citizen. The Framers clearly intended to exclude any chance of foreign influence from the highest administrative position in the federal government. John Jay felt so strongly on the issue that he sent a letter to George Washington in which he demanded that the new Constitution require "a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Commander in Chief of the American army shall not be given to nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen." Supreme Court Justice Story would later write that the natural-born-citizenship requirement “cuts off all chances for ambitious foreigners, who might otherwise be intriguing for the office.”
Under the ancient English common-law principle of jus soli, all persons—other than children of enemy aliens or foreign diplomats—born within the borders of a country are considered citizens of that country from birth. As a result, most people born within the United States—including the children of undocumented immigrants—are “natural born citizens” legally eligible to serve as president under the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment, which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
Less clear-cut, however, is whether children born abroad to United States citizens are similarly “natural born citizens” and eligible to serve as president. Since 1350, the British Parliament has applied the rule of jus sanguinis, which holds that newborn children inherit the citizenship of their parents, regardless of the place of birth. Thus, it is not surprising that when Congress enacted the first U.S. naturalization law in 1790, that law declared that “the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond the sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens.”
Still, the question of whether the term “natural born Citizen” used in the Presidential Eligibility Clause of Article II incorporates both the parliamentary rule of jus sanguinis in addition to the common law principle of jus soli. In the 1898 case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that citizenship through jus sanguinis, while available by statute, was not available through the 14th Amendment. Today, however, most constitutional experts argue that the Presidential Eligibility Clause of Article II does incorporate both jus sanguinis and jus soli, so George Romney, who was born in Mexico to American parents was eligible to run for president in 1968.
During the 2008 presidential election campaign, conspiracy theorists asserted that Democratic nominee Barack Obama, having actually been born in Kenya, was not a natural-born U.S. citizen, and was thus constitutionally ineligible to serve as President of the United States. After he was elected president, supporters of the so-called “birther theories” unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to block Obama from taking office. The claims persisted long after Obama had been sworn in as president, even though the White House released a certified copy Obama's “Certificate of Live Birth” showing his place of birth as Honolulu, Hawaii.
In March 2009, U.S. Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) introduced a bill (H.R. 1503) that, had it become law, would have amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to require all presidential candidates “to include with the [campaign] committee's statement of organization a copy of the candidate's birth certificate.” Though Posey’s bill eventually gained the support of 12 Republican co-sponsors, it was never voted upon by either house of Congress and died when the 111th Congress adjourned at the end of 2010.
Presidential Trivia and Controversies
- John F. Kennedy was theyoungest personto be elected president; he was 43 years old when he was inaugurated in 1961.
- A number of presidential hopefuls have had their citizenship questioned over the years. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump accused Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban-born father, of not being eligible for the presidency.
- The election of President Barack Obama in 2008, whose father was Kenyan, prompted a number of lawmakers to call for the presentation of a candidate's birth certificate at the time that he or she files for candidacy.
- Martin Van Buren was the first president to be born after the American Revolution, making him the first "true" American to serve.
- Virginia has produced more presidents—eight—than any other state. However, five of those men were born prior to independence. If you count only persons born after the American Revolution, then the honor goes to Ohio, which has produced seven leaders.
- Election Day was established by Congress in 1845 as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Prior to that, each state set its own date for elections.