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While reading this answer, I noticed some odd wording in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution (emphasis mine):

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.

Does this mean that, to be eligible for the office of President, one must have been a citizen when the Constitution was signed or otherwise 'adopted', presumably years ago? If not, what does "at the time of the adoption" mean in this context?

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    I think you're missing some parentheses. "No person except (a natural born citizen) or (a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this constitution)...
    – Kevin
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 18:21
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    corrigible = able to be corrected. negligible = able to be neglected. dirigible = able to be directed. eligible = able to be elected. This understanding of the word "eligible" seems largely forgotten. (This of course does not address the question, but it's relevant to understanding that part of the Constitution.) Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 23:44
  • The adoption of the Constitution happened at the time when it became ratified by nine states. That, as it turned out, is when New Hampshire ratified in in June 1788. Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 21:38
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    I posted an answer that said: "The adoption of the Constitution happened at the time when it became ratified by nine of the thirteen states. That, as it turned out, is when New Hampshire ratified in in June 1788." It was deleted on the grounds that it doens't answer the question. Part of the question was "what does "at the time of the adoption" mean in this context?" How is this not an answer to that? Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 17:35
  • @MichaelHardy I agree that your answer should not have been deleted d, but it is incomplete. "The time of adoption" is different in different states. Otherwise, people who had been citizens of the other 41 states when those states adopted the constitution would have been ineligible to be president.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 7:54

3 Answers 3

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No, it means the following are eligible:

  • Natural born citizens
  • Citizens of the United States, at the time of the adoption of the constitution

The second part was to allow people that were citizens of the US in 1788 (but were obviously not "natural born citizens", since the US didn't exist when they were born) to be eligible for the Presidency.

Check out Alexander Hamilton's draft of this clause:

No person shall be eligible to the office of President of the United States unless he be now a Citizen of one of the States, or hereafter be born a Citizen of the United States.

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    The second clause also allowed the US to have a President before 1823. Before 1823, no "natural born" citizen would meet the Article II requirement that the President had be at least 35 years old.
    – Just a guy
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 20:59
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    @Justaguy Those born after the declaration of independence were natural born citizens of the US, and the first of these would have become eligible in July 1811.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 8:10
  • @phoog Duh! You are absolutely correct. Thanks for pointing that out.
    – Just a guy
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 17:57
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    @zibadawatimmy of course. The point is, however, that natural born citizens of the United States existed before the constitution did, and that if we want to determine when the first natural born citizen of the US reached the age of 35 years, we should take that into account.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 23:57
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    It actually does come up from time to time in that many parts of the United States joined the nation well after the constitution. While citizenship of new territories has historically been disputed in when it happens, generally anyone in a territory (not a state) is a natural born U.S. Citizen upon entry into the Union and today such individuals would be allowed to run for President, though they have to be a citizen of a state to vote on President. Someone born and raised on Puerto Rico and never lived anywhere for 35 years of his life can be POTUS.
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 28, 2021 at 11:58
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The drafters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights did seem to wield commas like blunt instruments to smash into sentences (see the 2nd Amendment). The intention is clear if the comma after 'United States' is taken out:

"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;"

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    – isakbob
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 15:55
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There has never been a definitive legal interpretation of this clause. The Constitution is not self-interpreting. Only the Supreme Court of the US can give a definitive interpretation of what The Constitution says. SCOTUS has never been called on to interpret this issue, so we can only speculate as to what interpretations the words and punctuation have. A credible linguistic argument can be made that under rules of contemporary English, the comma before "at the time of the adoption of this Constitution" gives that restriction scope over both "a natural born citizen" and "a citizen of the United States". There are many schools of legal interpretation just on points of language, setting aside extra-textual considerations. No shool ever has held that the interpretation of the Constitution changes when the language changes. To make the argument that that last modifier has scope over both clauses, you would have to establish that there was such a rule of language at that time. There is ample evidence to the contrary.

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    -1` Every time that Congress has accepted the election of someone born after and certified the results it has legally and officially interpreted this provision Congress is just as much authorized to interpret the Constitution as the Supreme Court is. although a court interpretation would prevail if there was conflict. But there would not be. Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 16:52
  • @DavidSiegel I don't see a contradiction between your comment ("a court interpretation would prevail if there was a conflict") and this answer ("only the Supreme Court of the US can give a definitive interpretation of what The Constitution says" (emphasis mine)). This answer usefully summarises some of the principles of interpretation which would apply, notwithstanding that it is highly theoretical, and in doing so helps with understanding the answer to the question, which really comes down to the (by today's standards) confusing comma.
    – JBentley
    Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 13:36
  • I don't think interpretation of this provision comes down to the comma at all. The "avoid absurd results" rule of construction is much more important here, and would apply even if modern rules about comma usage had been in effect when the constitution was written. The interpretation suggested by the question is simply absurd, and any suggestion that the question is open because the Supreme Court has not passed on the matter is IMO at best misleading. Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 18:13

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