Sen. Ted Cruz hadn’t been an official contender for the presidency of the United States for 12 hours before the questions started coming, even in the warm and welcoming cradle of a primetime interview before what should be the friendliest of conservative audiences.
“You were born in Calgary, in Canada,” FOX News host Sean Hannity asked him, glancing into the camera for an apologetic chuckle. “Is there a birth certificate issue?”
It’s a question that’s lurked around the edges of Cruz’s political profile ever since the junior senator gained enough notoriety to be mentioned as a presidential candidate. Google searches for “Ted Cruz Canadian” spiked in October 2013 as he led Republicans towards a government shutdown; the query jumped again on Monday as he announced his White House run.
And some of it is friendly fire. Donald Trump, famed skeptic of prominent pols’ citizenship paperwork, didn’t resist the urge to tweak his fellow Republican on Monday night when making his own appearance on FOX’s primetime programming.
“I hope he knows what he's doing, but I thought you had to be born in the country,” he suggested to interviewer Megyn Kelly, adding that Cruz has “one extra level of complication” because of how long he maintained dual citizenship with both the United States and our kindly neighbors to the north.
Cruz is far from the first – or even the second – White House wannabe whose birthplace has launched quizzical headlines about his fitness to inhabit the White House. Even before the Obama “birther” movement, John McCain’s eligibility was questioned because he was born on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone.
Similar queries were made of Gov. George Romney (dad of Mitt and presidential contender in 1968), who was born in Mexico to U.S. citizen parents.
The same goes for Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s nominee in 1964, who was born in Arizona. The problem? Arizona wasn’t a state yet.
There’s no shortage of historical and scholarly thought on the presidential eligibility of a U.S. citizen board abroad (And Harvard Law graduate Cruz has likely read most of it.)
But here’s the bottom line: Courts, based on long-standing precedent derived from as far back as English common law and the First Congress, would be all but certain to say that Cruz, as the son of an American mother, qualifies as a “natural born citizen” eligible to serve as the commander-in-chief.
In other words, experts say: as long as you have one parent who’s an American citizen – no matter where you’re born – you’re a “natural born citizen," one of the qualifications under the Constitution to serve as president.
(As a fun side note: the Constitution’s framers had to contend with rumors that other foreign royals, including Prince Henry of Prussia, were poking around about this newfangled presidency concept, which sounded an awful lot like an exciting job opportunity for a wealthy foreigner seeking the title of “King.” Hence the aversion to immigrants serving as American leaders.)
Those three little words -- "natural born citizen" -- do present what Cruz’s detractors see as his problem: if he was born in Canada, they ask, then how could he be a “natural born” American?
The Constitution itself doesn’t define what being a “natural born Citizen” entails, and there aren’t any notes from the debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that clarify it either, according to the Congressional Research Service.
But Constitutional scholars tend to read the document in terms of English common law, which was a kind of baseline for the Founding Fathers as they figured out the details of their new government. The go-to textbook on common law at the time, treatises written by Sir William Blackstone, was pretty clear on who could and couldn’t be a citizen:
“[A]ll children, born out of the king’s ligeance, whose fathers were natural-born subjects, are now natural born subjects themselves, to all intents and purposes, without any exception; unless their said fathers were attainted, or banished beyond sea, for high treason; or were then in the service of a prince at enmity with Great Britain,” Blackstone wrote.
Translation: Unless your parents had been unceremoniously kicked out of the country, you were a subject of the Crown no matter where in the wide world you were born.
And there’s more.
Just after the drafting of the Constitution, the First Congress okayed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which stated that “the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens: ”
That tidbit is noted by two former Solicitors General, Paul Clement and Neal Katyal, in a piece in the Harvard Law Review. The two men (who served under presidents of opposite parties), conclude that the “natural born citizen” debate should be a no-brainer.
“An individual born to a U.S. citizen parent – whether in California or Canada or the Canal Zone – is a U.S. citizen from birth and is fully eligible to serve as President if the people so choose,” they conclude.
Cruz, a fellow Harvard Law alumnus, is familiar with all this history and political theory, as evidenced by his lengthy rebuttal to Hannity’s question on Monday night.
But with an eye on the optics, he also no doubt recognized that the very existence of his Canadian links would probably do him no favors as he courts some of the same voters who gleefully questioned Barack Obama’s Kenyan lineage.
So in September 2013, when the Dallas Morning News reported that Cruz still had dual citizenship with Canada -- a status he said he didn't realize he had -- he wasted little time.
"Nothing against Canada, but I’m an American by birth and as a U.S. senator, I believe I should be only an American," he said.
The following spring, Rafael Edward Cruz (Place of birth: Alberta, Canada), formally renounced his Canadian citizenship.