George Gordon Meade’s Birther Controversy

I am sure that by now most people are simply fed up with the continuing debate about the citizenship status of various presidents and presidential hopefuls. Given that there were Republicans who pushed for changing these requirements so that Arnold Schwarzenegger might consider a run for the White House while the status of Republican hopeful Ted Cruz is questioned by some people who want to engage in tit-for-tat, one has to consider the contingent nature of such outrage.

What more people overlook is that there was some discussion about George G. Meade’s citizenship status back in 1863 when he was named to command the Army of the Potomac in June 1863. You see, Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, on December 31, 1815. His father, Robert W. Meade, was serving at the time as the US consul there.

MeadeoneAccounts that describe Abraham Lincoln’s decision to elevate Meade to the command of the Army of the Potomac sometimes involve issues of Meade’s citizenship and identity. There are those tales that cite Meade’s foreign birth (thus disqualifying him for the presidency) as weighing on the president’s mind, while other narratives recount that Lincoln thought Meade would fight better “on his own dunghill” of Pennsylvania, which would suggest that Lincoln saw Meade as being a good American (and perhaps a better one than Joseph Hooker, whose talk of dictatorship as a good thing had made its way back to the president’s ears months before).

After Gettysburg, this discussion did not go away. Indeed, it became quite public. The New York Times contained a discussion of the issue, with one Michael Hennessy taking the view that Meade was a natural born citizen in reply to the short missive shown to the left.

(That’s right, a Hennessy from Brooklyn, future home of the New York Islanders, taking part in a dispute in print … but I digress.)

Meade’s prospects as a presidential candidate faded rather quickly, although the general and his wife were always ready to discuss the matter endlessly if only to make the ever-sensitive-to-a-slight Meade feel that someone liked him.

By the way, Meade’s status has been mentioned by participants in more recent controversies.

And, as a cherry on top, perhaps this will remind you why history is harder to write than fiction.


16 thoughts on “George Gordon Meade’s Birther Controversy

  1. Chuck May 18, 2013 / 1:13 pm

    I surely must have read of Meade’s birth in Spain in something I’ve read, but if so it never registered. Was he born in an American embassy? If so, wouldn’t that make him native-born? Is there a definitive Meade biography being written?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 18, 2013 / 1:16 pm

      The embassy would not have been in Cadiz. It doesn’t matter: Meade was a citizen according to the understanding of the time, but there was discussion of it.

      I know of a book on Meade that has just appeared, and a long-awaited biography is being written, or so I’ve been told.

    • Jerry Desko May 18, 2013 / 1:18 pm

      A child born of an American citizen, by common sense, should be an American citizen, wherever in the cosmos he or she were born.

      • Pat Young May 19, 2013 / 7:24 am

        For most of American history, merely being born as the child of a US citizen does not in itself confer citizenship without a number of conditions precedent and subsequent being met. Even today, you can be the child of a US citizen and not automatically be a citizen yourself. Similarly, being born within the territory of the US only conferred citizenship after passage of the 14th Amendment.

    • Pat Young May 19, 2013 / 7:26 am

      The Constitution does not use “native born” as the qualification for president, it uses “natural born” and offers no definition of that term.

    • Pat Young May 21, 2013 / 4:03 am

      Being born in a US embassy does not confer citizenship. While people often refer to embassies as “American soil”, they clearly are not. Otherwise moving an embassy from one place to another would involve a cession of US territory. Hence a Mexican woman at a diplomatic reception who gives birth is not the mother of a US citizen. In the modern era, Congress defines what is US territory through statute.

  2. Chuck May 18, 2013 / 2:33 pm

    Thanks, Brooks. I think I’ve seen the new Meade biography on Kindle.

    • Chuck May 19, 2013 / 4:02 am

      Just for the record, I saw no new Meade biography (or any other Made biography of value) on Kindle.

  3. Pat Young May 18, 2013 / 3:49 pm

    With all the questions over who is a “natural born citizen”, the real question is “Why is the phrase in the Constitution at all.” When I ask audiences about this, they typically respond “to save something for people born here,” which reveals both insecurity and an incurious mind. As I have said elsewhere:

    I would suggest that the framers were right to require that only natural born citizens be president, but that this requirement has outlived their purpose in creating it.

    Scholars Alexander Heard and Michael Nelson take up the subject of the “natural born citizen” requirement in their authoritative book on qualifications for the presidency, Presidential Selection, Duke University Press (1987). They say that the origin of the requirement that the President be a “natural born citizen” is in a July 25, 1787, letter from John Jay to George Washington, the president of the Constitutional Convention in which Jay writes:
    “Permit me to hint, whether it would be wise and seasonable to provide 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.”

    According to Heard and Nelson, “Historians agree that fear that a foreign ruler might someday be imported to reign over the United States prompted Jay’s letter.”

    There were rumors afoot in 1787 that Jay and other American “aristocrats”, who were derided as “Anglomen” by radical democrats, planned to invite the son of the English King George III to assume the presidency. The prospect of Prince Frederick Augustus, scion of the hated George III, becoming president was used in propaganda claiming that the wealthy sought to annul the gains that the Revolutionary generation had shed its blood for. And so, historians believe, Jay felt a special need to lay these claims of Anglomania to rest by barring the importation of the president.

    Today, such fears seem bizarre. But let us recall that when the Constitution was drafted, America was a weak and vulnerable nation of five million inhabitants. The British Empire still reigned in Canada, and France and Spain had substantial forces to the south of the new republic. In Europe, it was traditional for such threatened nations to import a foreign noble with powerful connections to rule over and defend the weaker country.

    And as recent subjects of the British King, the Americans knew that even the powerful English had imported three different foreign dynasties in the previous two centuries to rule. The Stuarts from Scotland, the House of Orange from the Netherlands, and George III’s own House of Hanover from Germany had successively run British affairs. They often appointed ministers similarly imported from their native lands and they entwined England in wars with more relevance to Germany or Holland than to Britain’s interests. The framers did not want America to follow suit.

    Had mere xenophobia been involved, the framers would have excluded all foreign-born persons from the presidency, but they did not.

    Article II of the Constitution allows anyone who was “a Citizen of the United States at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution” to serve as president. This was inserted to specifically allow foreign-born persons living in the United States in 1787 to become president. Then-prominent leaders like Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Robert Morris had all been born outside of what would later be the United States. Wilson, who is little remembered today, was James Madison’s principal ally in the fight for the passage of the Constitution, and it was he who insisted that the foreign-born be allowed to be president, at least until the founding generation died off.

    The United States is no longer in danger of importing a foreign potentate to assume the presidency. We have a vibrant democratic tradition and we don’t look abroad for men on white horses to lead us out of our crises. We also have millions of U.S. citizens, raised in this country, who were born somewhere else. Perhaps it is time that we reconsider what my teacher said to my class of native-born and immigrant children 45 years ago: “America is a place where anyone can grow up to be president, except for those of you born outside this country”.

  4. ironrailsironweights May 19, 2013 / 7:07 am

    Mitt Romney’s father George encountered a Meade-like issue when he contended for the Republican nomination in the 1960’s, having been born in Mexico to parents who were US citizens. From what I’ve read, there wasn’t much of a controversy, though had his candidacy lasted longer things might have been different.


  5. Mark May 20, 2013 / 10:26 am

    Yes, there was Romney’s dad, and then John McCain had to jump through some hoops to prove eligibility to run for president.

    But don’t forget Chester Arthur. His father emigrated from Ireland and didn’t become a naturalized U.S. citizen until 14 years after Chester Arthur was born. It may not have been a controversy at the time, but I don’t think it was generally known so it couldn’t have been.

  6. Mark May 20, 2013 / 10:33 am

    Oh forgot to add that according to rules at the time, his father’s marriage to his mother made her a alien too. I think at the least Arthur was born with dual citizenship. Supposedly he burned all personal records just before he died. I can’t verify any of this but I’ve discovered a number of historians believe this. It serves as no precedent in any sense since the facts of his birth weren’t widely known apparently.

  7. Pat Young May 20, 2013 / 7:55 pm

    The American people should be able to pick whom they will to be president.

  8. Pat Young May 20, 2013 / 7:58 pm

    There was also persistent speculation that Sheridan was born on the trip over from Ireland, possibly as a way to short circuit a presidential bid.

  9. Pat Young May 20, 2013 / 8:02 pm

    Arthur’s father was from Ireland, but he immigrated to the US from Quebec. Since Arthur was born just a few miles from Canada, there were rumors that he born in Canada.

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