With Barack Obama’s triumph in the Iowa caucuses, every candidate is hollering for “change” at every rally, press event and debate. Stephen Colbert came back on the air Monday, just in time to put together a hilarious montage of Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson, promising over and over in last weekend’s New Hampshire debate to “break a buck.”
But it’s not just the hopeless idealists espousing hopeless ideals: It’s the Republicans too. Conservatives, defined empirically by their preference for the status quo, have jumped in for change. Is it too late for me to jump aboard the change train too? No? Good.
Now that we have a woman and a black man as frontrunners for the presidency, here is what I’d like changed: As a naturalized citizen of the United States, I would like to be allowed the same delusions of political grandeur that so many other college kids have right now.
OK I admit it – some days I see myself in Obama’s place. And why shouldn’t I? Obama’s entire appeal is attributed to the fact that he inspires in us the hope that we too can be great. Many young people are inspired to see themselves as the unlikely savior, the one who comes from an unorthodox background and redefines boundaries.
But there are limits to this dream. For all his freshness and snubbing of the elite system, Obama is still a Harvard-bred lawyer with plenty of connections. Not all of us will make it to Harvard Law School, but at least Obama’s story shows that it is possible for those of modest backgrounds to make it to the top of the Ivy League and the country. What I’m talking about, however, is a different sort of barrier – one erected out of righteous concern, but today justified only with ignorance and unfounded contempt.
When the founding fathers decreed that a person had to be born in America to be eligible for the presidency, they probably had good reason to do so. America was a young, envied nation. Its people’s loyalties were new and therefore vulnerable to corruption. Their suspicions may be easy to decry as paranoia today, but it turns out they were right – at least initially.
One example of how volatile loyalties were at the time, even among those born in America, is Aaron Burr. Vice president to Thomas Jefferson, Burr had almost become president instead of Jefferson. He was a giant in the politics of his time, a senator and vice president whom we should be able to name alongside Jefferson and James Madison as crucial players in early American politics. But we don’t grant Burr that honor today, and for good reason.
You see, when he wasn’t busy lobbying the U.S. House of Representatives to reject Jefferson and choose him as president (there was a tie in the Electoral College) or shooting Alexander Hamilton in New Jersey (the first of many famous whackings in New Jersey), Burr found other ways to be un-American.
In 1807, just two years after leaving the office of vice president, Burr was tried for treason before the U.S. Supreme Court. It is said that he had been the leader of a conspiracy to annex land just beyond America’s southwest border and establish in it a sovereign state. Fifty years before Jefferson Davis’s similar treason was the Burr Conspiracy, which could have altered the fortunes of the entire world had it succeeded.
So, the lesson here is that while America was young, loyalties were less firm and the founders had to be wary of whom they allowed to gain power. Though people may have been in positions of power in this country, they were not mandated to any allegiance other than to their own vanity. Decreeing that the president of the United States be born in the country was the founding fathers’ way of ensuring as best they could that people of foreign influences never came to power.
But we live in a very different world today. Just because you were born in America no longer means you have lived here your whole life and know nothing of the outside world. Obama himself lived in Indonesia for years as a child. Nor does being born outside of America necessitate any longer that your mind will be more apt to undermine the American system. Have any of us really suspected leaders like Jennifer Granholm, Madeleine Albright or George Romney of being anything less than loyal Americans?
This isn’t something we should really have to even talk about today. There has been talk about changing this outdated rule and giving naturalized citizens the right to run for president, but nothing has come of it so far. Perhaps in this sudden climate of optimism, that can be among the things that change.
After all, consider that Burr was an American by birth, and yet he shot and killed a far more worthy leader and thinker in Hamilton. And to think that Hamilton (born in the Caribbean) was the one the Constitution barred from the presidency.
Imran Syed is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org