Foreign-Born US Presidential Contenders, Part 1

“No person except a natural born Citizen … shall be eligible to the Office of President,” so says Article II, Section I of the United States Constitution. The clause has gained a lot of media attention in recent years, as fodder for attacks against Barack Obama’s eligibility. However, it was not the first time that a candidate’s citizenship has been brought into question. The question of eligibility was brought up briefly in 1968 during George Romeny’s campaign for the Republican nomination, as Romney was born in Mexico to American parents. In 1880, erroneous accusations were made against Republican Vice Presidential candidate Chester A. Arthur that he was born in Ireland, and when those failed, Canada.

However, there is the question of whether the natural born citizen clause is necessary and relevant. Why should a person who has proven themselves electable be ineligible for the presidency or vice presidency simply because they were born outside the country. During the formative years of the United States this may have been necessary to avoid European nobility meddling with the country’s affairs, but it soon became a small footnote. Meanwhile, there have been many capable politicians who could have arisen to the presidency, except that they were foreign-born.

The earliest person who could have potentially been elected President had they been born in the United States was Judah P. Benjamin. Benjamin was born in 1811 on the island of St. Croix, then part of the Danish West Indies. His family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1813. Benjamin attended Yale and after graduating, returned to the South where he became a successful commercial lawyer in New Orleans. After gaining a reputation in Louisiana, Benjamin was elected as a Whig to the state’s House of Representatives in 1844. In 1853, Benjamin’s career advanced as he was elected to the United States Senate. Presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce offered to nominated Benjamin to the Supreme Court, but the refused, preferring active politics. Benjamin switched to the Democrats after the Whig Party collapsed in 1856, and when Louisiana seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States, Benjamin resigned his Senate seat. During the Civil War, Judah Benjamin’s political acumen was rewarded with cabinet positions in the Confederacy Benjamin served as Attorney General, Secretary of the War, and Secretary of State for the Confederacy throughout the war, spending the majority of the conflict as the Confederate Secretary of State.

After Robert E. Lee’s surrender guaranteed the end of the Confederacy, many members of the Confederate government including Benjamin fled into exile as Union forces advanced toward Richmond. Benjamin made his way from Virginia south to Florida where he snuck through the Union blockade to reach British territory in the Bahamas. From there, Benjamin boarded a ship for Europe and arrived in Southampton in August of 1865. Benjamin lived the remainder of his life in the United Kingdom and France, never returning to the United States. He applied for the bar and continued practicing law in the UK, arguing several cases in front of the House of Lords. Benjamin died in Paris in 1884 after suffering heart problems.

As an accomplished Senator in the 1850s, Judah P. Benjamin could have been a contender for the Democratic nomination instead of James Buchanan or Stephen Douglas had he been eligible. His background would have combined Buchanan’s Southern support with Douglas’s support from commercial and railroad interests. However, even without the natural born citizen clause, there would have been one major roadblock to Benjamin’s nomination: his religion. Judah P. Benjamin was Jewish, and the first professed Jew to serve in the United States Senate. While Benjamin was not a practising Jew, it would have likely prevented him from attaining the Presidential or even Vice Presidential nomination if he were to seek it. It is surprising that he attained such a high position as he did in the Confederate government.

The other major foreign-born politician who could have potentially risen to the presidency during the 19th century was Missouri senator and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. Schurz was born in 1829 and lived his formative years in Prussia, going to school in Cologne before attending the University of Bonn. There, he became involved with the democratic student movements in Germany through one of his professors, and participated in the Revolutions of 1848 in Germany. Schurz became an officer in a revolutionary army during 1848 and 1849, fighting in the Palatinate and Baden. When the Revolutions were crushed by the Prussians, Schurz fled to Switzerland and Britain before emigrating to Philadelphia.

After briefly living in Philadelphia, Schurz and his wife moved to Wisconsin in 1852. Through the 1850s, Carl Schurz became active in politics, helping to organize the Republican Party of Wisconsin. As a German immigrant, Schurz gained national attention for bringing many German-Americans in the Midwest to support the Republican Party. During the Civil War, Schurz briefly served as ambassador to Spain in 1861 and fought for the Union, rising to the rank of Major General. After the war Schurz moved to Saint Louis where he became a newspaper editor for one of the German language papers in the state.

In 1868, Schurz was elected to the Senate from Missouri, becoming the first German-born American to serve in the Senate. He served for a single term, and presided over the breakaway Liberal Republican Party that nominated Horace Greeley for president in 1872 against Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection. Schurz, like many Liberal Republicans, returned to the Republicans after Grant won reelection, and in 1877 was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Hayes. As Interior Secretary, Schurz cracked down on the corruption in the Office of Indian Affairs, and fought for the office to remain in the Interior Department rather than be transferred to the War Department. After his term as Interior Secretary ended in 1881, Schurz moved to New York City for the remainder of his life. Schurz was an activist campaigning against Tammany Hall and joined the American Anti-Imperialist League in 1898. Schurz died in 1906 in New York.

If he had been eligible, Schurz would have most likely been in the running for the Liberal Republican presidential nomination in 1872, or as a Republican in the 1880s. Schurz would have likely been a better candidate than Greeley in the 1872 election against Grant, as Greeley was a weak campaigner and was defeated in a landslide. Even so, Carl Schurz would have been hurt by his Catholicism, since at the time there was a surge in nativist sentiment in the country. Additionally, support for Grant was high and it would be difficult for any candidate to unseat Grant that year. However, in the 1880s, Schurz may have had a better chance at the nomination in the Republican Party. There would still be the issue of Schurz’s Catholicism, but his record as an honest civil servant would be commendable as the Republican Party tried to steer away from the corruption of the Grant administration. Additionally, Schurz may have attracted German-American support in the Midwest, where German Catholics tended to vote Democratic.

As there are several potential foreign-born politicians who could have been presidential contenders, I am dividing the topic into several posts. I will continue this topic in the coming days.

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