When the United States Constitution was being drafted and ratified, the Founders debated over what qualifications to impose on the nation’s highest offices. Some delegates argued that members of Congress shouldn’t be debtors or foreign-born. Others insisted that all federal officers should be landowners. A few believed there should be almost no qualifications or restrictions on who holds a federal office—that the voters should decide who is best equipped.

In the end, the framers of the Constitution chose to include just three qualifications for the office of U.S. president. They’re laid out in Article II, Section 1, Clause 5:

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.

Unlike European aristocracies, where only wealthy landed gentlemen could rule, America’s Constitution imposed no financial requirements or religious tests on who was fit for office.

“In the ratifying conventions, there were people who said, ‘You mean somebody who is poor, or somebody who is not a Christian, or somebody who doesn’t hold any land can become president of the United States?’ It was a little bizarre to think that anyone could serve,” says Derek Muller, an election law professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. “The notion was that these were some bare minimums. They expected that the people who voted—or the electors who voted for president—would exercise their judgment about who had the appropriate qualifications.”

Basic Qualifications: Age, Citizenship and Residency

According to the Constitution, there are just three basic qualifications for being president:

  1. Age: The person must be at least 35 years old
  2. Citizenship: The person must be a “natural born citizen” (meaning they were born to American parents and did not become a citizen through the naturalization process)
  3. Residency: The person has lived in the U.S. at least 14 years

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Founders debated the minimum age for federal officers, with George Mason proposing 25 for members of the House and James Wilson arguing that there shouldn’t be any age restrictions at all. James Madison, in his minutes of the Convention, reported Wilson saying, “There was no more reason for incapacitating youth than age, when the requisite qualifications were found.”

In the end, the Founders settled on three different minimum ages: 25 for the House, 30 for the Senate and 35 for the presidency (and vice presidency). Muller says the president’s minimum age must be met by Inauguration Day. A 34-year-old could be elected president in November of an election year, but they’d need to turn 35 before January 20 to take office.

The Founders universally supported a citizenship requirement, and there wouldn’t have been any confusion about what it meant to be a “natural born” citizen. That language was common in 18th-century British law, which recognized all children born to British parents as “natural-born subjects,” even if they were born outside the British Empire.

Note that the framers were careful to include the clause “​​at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution,” to waive the “natural-born” requirement for prominent delegates like Robert Morris and James Wilson, who were born to British parents outside of the American Colonies (England and Scotland respectively).

The president is the only federal officer who is required to have lived in the U.S. a specific number of years. (House members and Senators only have to be residents of the states they represent.) In explaining the logic of the Founders, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote that the 14-year residency ensured that “the people may have a full opportunity to know [the candidate’s] character and merits, and that he may have mingled in the duties, and felt the interests, and understood the principles, and nourished the attachments, belonging to every citizen in a republican government.”

Impeachment and Conviction

Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution states that a president or other federal officials can be impeached and removed from office if convicted (by Congress) of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Only three U.S. presidents have been impeached—Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (twice)—but none was convicted and removed. If they had been convicted, though, could they run again for president and serve another term?

The short answer is “no.” Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Constitution states (in part): “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”

However, Constitutional scholars debate the scope of the impeachment disqualification clause. To the Framers, the phrase “any Office … under the United States” did not apply to any state positions, so an impeached and convicted president could still hold any state position, says Seth Barrett Tillman, an American law professor at the Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology in Ireland.

Some scholars, including Tillman, believe that the impeachment disqualification clause only applies to appointed positions, not elected office. According to that reading of the Constitution—which Tillman admits is a minority—an impeached and convicted president could be re-elected to the White House. It would ultimately be up to the Supreme Court to decide.

Two More Disqualifications: Term Limits and Insurrection

Muller says that the Constitution mentions two other situations in which people would be disqualified or barred from being president. Both are found in constitutional amendments.

The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, formally imposed a two-term limit on U.S. presidents. Starting with George Washington, all American presidents stepped down after two terms (if re-elected). That custom was broken by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was re-elected to historic third and fourth terms in 1940 and 1944, as America was embroiled in World War II.

Legislators passed the 22nd Amendment to prevent future presidents from trying to beat FDR’s record of 12 years in office. That’s why former presidents who served two full terms are disqualified from serving again. (Interestingly, the wording of the 22nd Amendment says that no person can be “elected” more than twice for president, but it doesn’t explicitly prevent a former two-term president from ascending to a third term via the vice presidency.)

The Constitution’s only other disqualification for the presidency came in 1868, in the wake of the Civil War, when lawmakers sought to prevent former Confederate officers from occupying seats in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment states:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Lawmakers successfully employed Section 3 in the 1860s to prevent former Confederates from blocking Reconstruction legislation. But by 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant was under pressure to lift the ban on former Confederates, which he did—with the General Amnesty Act of 1872. After that, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment sat on the shelf for nearly 150 years.

Criminal Convictions and Jail Sentences are Not Disqualifiers

When it comes to eligibility for the nation’s highest office, the founding document makes no mention of the issue of criminal convictions. Nothing prevents a person convicted of multiple felonies or other criminal charges from becoming president.

“The Constitution does not list those things out,” says Muller. “Voters can certainly take that into consideration, but that’s a different matter from saying that you’re barred from holding office.”

Technically, there’s nothing in the Constitution or its amendments that says a president couldn’t perform their duties from prison, either. In the 1920 presidential election, the socialist candidate Eugene Debs ran his campaign from a federal prison in Georgia, where he was serving a 10-year sentence for sedition. Debs ran as "Convict No. 9653” and won 3.5 percent of the vote.

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