Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The "Irish-Born" Robinson Amendment

The constitutional strike-through amendment that I'd like to see adopted as soon as possible is one offered by Congress William Erigena ("Irish-Born") Robinson in 1868. The immediate political context for Robinson was perceived second-class citizenship for naturalized American citizens of Irish descent who had fought for the Union. Robinson's proposed amendment would have removed the "natural born Citizen" requirement for presidential eligibility from the Constitution. 

On May 18, 1868, Rep. Robinson introduced a resolution proposing as a constitutional amendment:

That article two, section one, subdivision four, be amended so as to read:

No person except a Citizen of the United States 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. 

Assuming that Robinson would have kept the capitalizations of the original (unclear from the Congressional Globe version), this proposed amendment would not have added any language to the Constitution, but would have taken out the words "natural born" and the by-then-obsolete language authorizing non-natural-born citizens who were citizens at the time of ratification. In red-line form, the amendment would be:

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.

Eligibility to run for President was not the most pressing issue for Irish-American naturalized citizens at the time. The broader context was a form of second-class citizenship abroad. Under the doctrine of perpetual allegiance, Britain was jailing for disloyalty Irish-American naturalized citizens found within Canada, Ireland, and Britain, and the United States government had to be pressed hard to guarantee that naturalized citizens traveling abroad received the same protections as natural born citizens. 

Although imprisonment abroad was more practically pressing, the ineligibility of Irish-American naturalized citizens for the office of President was of sufficient significance that Rep. Robinson introduced his amendment.

Coming off a bloody war in which tens of thousands of Irish-born American citizens were killed or wounded, and in which a dozen Irish-born Americans were Union generals, the eligibility exclusion was a reminder that not all citizens were created as equal citizens.

Seen in this light, the motivations for Robinson's amendment are similar to those behind the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, adopted a little over a century later. That amendment guaranteed the right to vote for eighteen year-olds. One of the most prominent arguments for that amendment, in the shadow cast by the Vietnam War, was that those who are old enough to die fighting for the country should not be excluded by their relative youth from being full voting members of the nation.

In future posts, I'll discuss the merits of a renewed attempt now at the "Irish-Born" Robinson Amendment. For now, though, I'll close with a connection to Catholic thought. William Erigena Robinson's middle name was of the same derivation as the name of John Scottus Eriugena. That earlier Irish-born man was "generally recognized to be both the outstanding philosopher (in terms of originality) of the Carolingian era and of the whole period of Latin philosophy stretching from Boethius to Anselm." Not a bad namesake!


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