I spy a small, but critical, gaffe!
The Constitution of the United States is a nearly-flawless document in terms of sentence structure, syntax and spelling. It is arguably the most unblemished piece of writing in our nation’s history. But thirty nine delegates including impeccable writers such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, James Madison, William Blount, and convention secretary, William Jackson may have overlooked the syntax of Article II which creates the requirements for holding the office of the presidency.
It was February 21, 1787 when a convention of state delegates gathered in Philadelphia to propose a plan of government that would revise the existing Articles of Confederation. The Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but did not go into effect until March, 1789. The opening lines of this famous document–The Preamble–should be familiar to every U S citizen:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, (sic) promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
OK, we get that part. We can’t expect they would have added “You feel me?” to make sure people like us, two and a half centuries later, would be able to decipher the lingo of the 18th century.
We didn’t speak or write the way we did 240 years ago.
That said, or rather, written, the founding fathers (FFs) were educated men who spoke and wrote in a very exact form of the English language. Their conversations and writings were very formal–a result of their ancestry–primarily British Irish, and Scots. For example, only lawyers write this way today: (Article I, Section 7)
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. Article II, Section 7
Wow. The FFs left out a few commas and the subject verb agreement is whack! But that was the language of the 18th century. For the most part, it was understandable and, for its time, entirely proper.
But here’s the one little grammatical flaw that caught my attention. Read the requirements for the office of the presidency. Pay special attention to the boldface type and read it out loud.
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.
One small grammatical error in that phrase, makes it technically impossible to elect a president!
And it’s all because of one little preposition
If you want to be picky (which I am being) the way that clause is placed, taken literally, means you would only be eligible to become president if you met all the requirements AT the time the Constitution was adopted. Like, right away. Right now. That day!
That’s a very short window and it may sound like over-kill and even disrespectful, but the preposition “at” instead of “from” does make a difference. Why didn’t they just say “Effective with the date of adoption of this Constitution…” Obviously, the framers meant “…from the time this Constitution is adopted, these are the requirements to be eligible for the office of president” with an emphasis on “from the time” as in “from now on.” But it would not sound nearly as expressive or fluent.
This insignificant prepositional gaffe hasn’t stirred up any trouble since 1787 because “at the time” meant precisely “from the time.” However, a simple re-write couldn’t hurt. For enhanced eloquence, it might read as follows:
At the time of Adoption of this Constitution, we the undersigned decree that only a natural born citizen or a citizen of the United States, shall be eligible for the Office of the President.
And although it is not incorrect, I wonder what the FFs wanted to convey when they used the negative instead of the affirmative, as in the following:
- NO PERSON…
- NEITHER SHALL ANY PERSON…
- WHO SHALL NOT HAVE ATTAINED…
Obviously, they wanted to be very clear: they meant “no person” except as described, as a stern caveat. In plain language, and in the affirmative, it would be: “OK, so if you want to be president, you need to be a natural-born citizen. Check? OK, and you have to be at least 35 years old, and you lived here in the colonies for 14 years, right? OK, that’s it. You’re good to go! “
But the founders didn’t talk or write like that. They would never say, for example, “We don’t talk like that” but rather “We are learned gentlemen who are unaccustomed to such primitive forms of structure and indeterminate manipulation of words.” Or something like that.
They saw the need for indisputable language in crafting the Constitution. It was a language devoted to precision in accordance with proper English of the time.
At this time, however, their selection of words, as in “natural-born citizen” is causing a big problem for Ted Cruz. See my next post for claireification on that subject.
It will take an act of Congress to pass a bill to amend a grammatical blemish, and according to the Congressional calendar, Congress is only working 175 days this year.
The moral of this story: watch your language. One little word or phrase can change the meaning of everything, including your eligibility to run for the office of President.
The second moral–and I apologize for the low point–is that perhaps it doesn’t matter, for several reasons. A very small percentage of today’s lawmakers care about grammar. Just listen to them! An even smaller percentage of the American people care and a huge percentage of the population has never even read the Constitution.
Most important, everyone knows that if Cruz is nominated, which at this writing, is unlikely, the Senate will give him a pass just as they did with Goldwater and McCain. Or, #2: Cruz will drop out after a few more appearances on the stage; or #3, opponents will start to hammer him about his citizenship status and he will realize he really can’t do the job with all the baggage he will have to carry.
Perhaps they should all drop out. Thomas Jefferson himself called the presidency a “thankless job.” And Gore Vidal warned “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.”
All in favor, say “Aye.”
Claire is a former TV anchor and reporter who has written for numerous newspapers and magazines for more than thirty years. She blogs on various subjects including politics, etymology, language and grammar, health, civility, history, corporate greed, civil rights, environmental issues, and race relations. She is also the author of a children’s book on the environment, Kai Blue. Her websites are www.claireifications.com and www.kai-blue.com. Your comments on this or any of her blogs are welcome.