Monday, April 18, 2011

John Peter Altgeld

Gerard N. Magliocca

Today marks the official release of my new book (psst--top right of your screen) and I wanted to mark that with a slightly quirky post that links up to themes that are frequently expressed here. So let's talk about the constitutional rule that only natural-born citizens (as opposed to naturalized ones) can be President. Sandy has written at length about the stupidity of this provision, and I certainly agree. Indeed, this is probably the least defensible clause in the text.

The "natural-born" provision, though, is usually discussed in a political vacuum. What I mean by that is those who oppose the rule typically list famous leaders who were barred from running for President as proof that no such requirement should be imposed. For example, there's Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Albert Gallatin (the Treasury Secretary under Jefferson and Madison), and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The problem is that none of these people had a prayer of being elected President. Since that is true, it is hard to make the case that barring naturalized citizens from the White House inflicts a concrete harm, even though the exclusion is at odds with the principle that all citizens are equal before the law.

What does this have to do with William Jennings Bryan? The answer is that, but for the "natural-born" rule, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896 could well have been John Peter Altgeld, the Governor of Illinois. Altgeld was very popular with liberals because of his decision to give clemency to the Haymarket Rioters, who were convicted of a bombing in Chicago after a deeply flawed trial that was close to a lynch mob. He also strongly supported the Pullman Railroad Strike of 1894, led by Eugene V. Debs, and fought against President Cleveland's decision to send troops into Chicago to break the strike. More important, the Democratic Convention in 1896 was in Chicago, and the ability of a home-state favorite to influence the convention was well-established at that time (Lincoln did this at the 1860 GOP Convention in Chicago).

Alas, Altgeld was born in Germany. Who knows if he would have won the Presidency, but he is probably the most consequential person ever ensnared by the Natural-Born Citizen Clause. And given the importance of the 1896 election for constitutional law, as my book discusses at length, the impact of substituting Altgeld for Bryan could have been profound.

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