President Chester A. Arthur and the Birthers, 1880’s Style

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Legal History, President & Executive Branch
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arthurThe Obama citizenship “debate” has surprisingly brought former president Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) back into the pages of American newspapers, which is no small feat.  Unlike President Obama, who is clearly eligible to hold the nation’s highest office, Arthur, the twenty-first president (1881-84), may well have been an “unconstitutional” president.

Although Arthur is frequently seen as Millard Fillmore primary competition for the title of “Most Obscure President in U.S. History,” the circumstances of his birth have raised questions eeriely similar to those asked about President Barack Obama by the birthers. 

Before 1880, Chester Arthur was a minor New York City politician who was a protégé of Sen. Roscoe Conkling of the Empire State.  Although he was a prominent lawyer, he had never run for, let alone held, elective office at any level.  Nevertheless, at the 1880 Republican Presidential Convention in Chicago, he was added to the Republican national ticket as the running mate of presidential candidate James Garfield.  Arthur was selected to balance the slate geographically — Garfield was from Ohio, part of the Midwest in an era when regions mattered — and to placate Sen. Conkling, a presidential aspirant himself and the leader of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party.

In 1871, President Grant, with Conkling’s blessings, had appointed Arthur to the lucrative position as Collector of the Port of New York.  However, seven years later, he had been removed from that position by President Rutherford B. Hayes, as part of a presidential effort to crack down on the spoils system.  Although there was no evidence of real corruption at the custom house while Arthur was Collector, it was also clear that Arthur had no objections to padding the Collector’s payroll with loyal Republicans. Once elected, Arthur remained loyal to Conkling and the spoils system, and he and Garfield clashed repeatedly on questions of federal appointments, which led Garfield to ban Arthur from the White House.

However, on July 2, 1881, Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, a deranged supporter of Conkling, who, after shooting the president, shouted, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts . . . Arthur is president now!”  Guiteau’s two shots actually did not prove to be fatal, and Garfield lived until September 19, when he was finally done in by a combination of infection and poor medical care. 

Although he was a product of, and, at least initially, a supporter of the spoils system, as president Arthur actually turned out to be fairly progressive and a strong supporter of civil service reform.  In 1883, he signed the Pendleton Act, which established the first Civil Service Commission.  Although he sought his party’s presidential nomination for 1885, he was not renominated by the Republican Party.  Even so, he left office widely respected by members of both parties.  Even Mark Twain begrudgingly acknowledged that “it would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.”

Questions of Arthur’s eligibility for the nation’s highest office surfaced during the 1880 campaign.  Arthur was the son of an Irishman who emigrated first to Canada and the then to the United States, and who finally became a naturalized United States citizen in 1843, fifteen years after his son Arthur’s birth in 1829.  Arthur’s mother was a United States citizen born in Vermont but whose family emigrated to Canada where she met and married her husband.  By the time of Arthur’s birth, his parents had moved back to Vermont. 

The controversy over Arthur’s citizenship status centers around the place of Arthur’s actual birth.  By one account he was born in his family’s home in Franklin County, Vermont.  If this was true, then he was clearly a natural born citizen.  On the other hand, the competing account has it that he was born during his pregnant mother’s visit to her family’s home in Canada. 

If the latter story is true, then Arthur was technically foreign-born, and in 1829, citizenship in such cases passed to the child only if the father was a United States citizen, and, of course, at this point Arthur’s father was still a citizen of the British Empire.

The principal advocate of the “born in Canada” theory was Arthur’s fellow New York lawyer Arthur P. Hinman who was hired in 1880 by the Democratic Party to investigate Arthur’s ancestry.  Hinman initially undermined his owned credibility by embracing an argument that Arthur was himself born in Ireland and didn’t come to the United States until he was fourteen years old.  That story was patently false and easily disproven. 

However, Hinman later discovered acquaintances of the Arthur family in Canada who told him the story of Arthur’s accidental Canadian birth.  Convinced that he now had proof of Arthur’s foreign citizenship, he published his findings in 1884 in a short book entitled How a Subject of the British Empire Became President of the United States.  Hinman’s book appeared near the end of Arthur’s presidency, and no official action was ever taken on the basic of his alleged evidence.

Arthur himself always insisted that he was born in Vermont, but he may not have known the place of his birth. By the time he was six years old, his family had left Vermont for New York, and he never lived in the Green Mountain State again.  It is possible that his parents considered the circumstances of his Canadian birth to be personally embarrassing and never shared the details of the story with him.

An investigation by the Boston Globe earlier this year — no doubt inspired by the Birther controversy — confirmed that there are no official records regarding Arthur’s birth in either Vermont or in Canada.  See Boston Globe, “Chester Arthur Rumor Still Lingers in Vermont,” August 17, 2009.

We will probably never know if Arthur was really eligible to be president of the United States in 1881.

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11 Responses to “President Chester A. Arthur and the Birthers, 1880’s Style”

  1. While the birther case against Chester A. Arthur may be long since moot, there is still an opportunity for revisionist historians to attribute that president’s relative mediocrity to the fact of his having been born in Canada.

  2. Raymond Collier Says:

    I had not known of this Controversy prior to reading this Article. If this is the Case that Chester A. Arthur wasn’t a “Natural-Born Citizen”, then there needs to be either a Legislative and/or Constitutional remedy. The very nature that this Controversy has raised it’s ugly head again with President Obama shows the need to a necessary remedy that both Political Parties can agree on.

  3. Raymond Collier Says:

    It’s also interesting that the Democrats in 1916 were building a “Birther Case” on Charles Evans Hughes during the 1916 Presidential Election. According to the article that I ran across Charles Evans Hughes’ Father & Mother were both British subjects & NOT “Naturalized Citizens,” which would’ve made Charles Evans Hughes ineligible to be President IF he (Hughes) would’ve won the 1916 Presidential Election against President Woodrow Wilson! Breckenridge Long, an attorney and graduate of Washington University Law School, wrote the article, entitled “Is Mr. Charles Evans Hughes a ‘Natural Born Citizen’ within the Meaning of the Constitution?” Published in the “Chicago Legal News,” Vol. 146, p. 220 in 1916! The 1916 Election was a close election. Woodrow Wilson barely won the election! The Electoral vote count was extremely close, 277 to 254.

  4. Gordon Hylton Says:

    The difference is that no one denies that Hughes was born in the United States–in Glen Falls, New York in 1862. His father, David C. Hughes, was a British subject born in Wales in 1822 who emigrated to the U.S. in 1855. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1860, and became a United States citizen in 1864 when his son was two years old.

    Long apparently believed that to be a “natural born” citizen, a person had to have a father that was a United States citizen. The definition has been rejected many times, including by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1830.

    “Nothing is better settled at the common law than the doctrine that the children even of aliens born in a country while the parents are resident there under the protection of the government and owing a temporary allegiance thereto are subjects by birth..”

    Inglis v. Trustees of Sailor’s Snug Harbor, 28 U.S. 99 (1830)

  5. Minor v. Happersett (1875) SCOTUS defined what a NATURAL Born Citizen is. Born in the jurisdiction to U.S.to two U.S. citizen parents. Neither of Arthur’s parents were U.S. citizen until he was a teenager. He was only Britsh until his father was naturalized when he was a teenager.

    Minor v. Happersett has never been overturned. Arthur and Obama may have both become citizens jus soli, (born) citizens, but were never and could never be NATURAL Born citizens of the U.S. Obama was born a Dual citizen under the British Nationality Act and may remain one to this day — the founders required sole allegiance to the country – this is common sense for a country’s survival and goes back to biblical times.

  6. The case of Minor v. Happersett does NOT condition the acquisition of jus soli citizenship on the U.S. citizenship of both parents:

    “The Constitution does not, in words, say who shall be natural-born citizens. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that. At common-law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives, or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners. Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case it is not necessary to solve these doubts. It is sufficient for everything we have now to consider that all children born of citizen parents within the jurisdiction are themselves citizens.”

  7. Yes, you are correct that for 14th amendment citizenship (a born citizen) neither parent must be a citizen. However to be NATURAL Born Citizen both parents must be citizens according to Minor. Minor also distinguishes between two types of citizen — born of citizen parents and one without citizen parents.

    “At common-law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives, or natural-born citizens.”

    http://naturalborncitizen.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/multiple-instances-of-historical-scholarship-conclusively-establish-the-supreme-courts-holding-in-minor-v-happersett-as-standing-precedent-on-citizenship-obama-not-eligible/#comment-19034

    No law, amendment, statute etc. is needed to declare a NATURAL Born Citizen because he could have no other citizenship. It’s what comes naturally under natural law.

    http://unlawfulpresident.com/unreleased-never-vetted-book-natural-born-citizen-chapter-released-for-free/

  8. Joseph Hylton Says:

    To cite Minor v. Happersett as the definitive statement of the meaning of the phrase “natural born citizen” is to exhibit an unfortunate lack of understanding of the Supreme Court’s 1874 decision in that case.

    The Minor case involved Virginia Louisa Minor’s constitutional challenge to the Missouri law that limited voting to adult males. Her unsuccessful argument was that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the equal protection of the laws prohibited the state of Missouri from denying women the right to vote.

    Ms. Minor was born in Caroline County, Virginia on March 27, 1824. Both of her parents were born in Virginia in the 1790′s, and all of her grandparents had been born in the Virginia colony. (One of her grandmothers was a cousin of President James Madison.) Consequently,the issue of whether or not she was a national born citizen had nothing to do with the case.

    To latch on the comments made by Chief Justice Waite in passing and to claim that those comments are somehow definitive is simply absurd. Moreover, as Prof. Fallone pointed out in an earlier comment, Waite specifically stated that it was not necessary to define natural born citizen to resolve the case at hand.

  9. Ethan Greene Says:

    I have a question.

    One of the birthers main beliefs is that the Minor decision is binding precedent for the definition of a “natural born Citizen”. Since most birthers are not lawyers, they do not understanding the difference between dicta and holding. They have been influenced by the writings of a handful of lawyers.

    On January 26th, 2012 there will be an administrative hearing in Atlanta, Georgia in a challenge to the Democratic Party’s selection of President Obama to be on the Georgia Presidential Preference Primmary. The challenge is being brought by several Georgia voters and they are being represented by several lawyer (one a Georgia State Representative).

    The challenge is based on the fact that the President’s father was not a US citizen.

    “The U.S. Supreme Court has defined “natural-born citizens” as “all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens.” See Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 167 (1875). The Court in Happersett did go on to state that other sub-categories of people may or may not be within the broader term “citizen.” However, it did so only after specifically identifying the narrower category “natural-born citizens.” Id. The Happersett Court clearly understood and established that “citizen” is a much broader term than “natural-born citizens.” Its discussion of “citizen” does not negate or alter its earlier definition of the term “natural-born citizens.” See Id. at 167-168. This precedent has never been questioned by any subsequent Supreme Court. This precedent is binding.”

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/76694597/Welden-v-Obama-Opposition-to-Motion-to-Dismiss-Obama-Georgia-Primary-Ballot-Challenge-12-19-2011

    So here is my question:

    Is it ethical for an attorney to cite Supreme Court dicta as “binding precedent”?

  10. I’ve wrote quite a bit on President Arthur back in early 2009 over at the Obama Conspiracy Theories blog and made available a copy of Hinman’s book referenced in this article:

    http://www.obamaconspiracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/HinmanWeb.pdf

    Biographers of Arthur don’t seem to give much credence to the Canadian birth story, basing their conclusions on the Arthur family Bible entry. Revisionist history tries to make out that Arthur tried to hide his father’s Irish citizenship, but those theories don’t square with the facts. It’s clear from Hinman’s book that he was aware of Arthur’s father’s Irish citizenship, but saw no reason to make a point of it.

    The Chancery Court of New York (Arthur was from New York) had already said that the children of aliens could be president in Lynch v. Clarke (1844).

  11. Damian Turner Says:

    We acquired a grant to take oral histories from the elderly in Waterville, Vermont. It was striking to us that it seemed like common knowledge to all that Chester A. Arthur was born in Waterville and the historical storyline was compelling. His dad was the minister in Waterville and was building a house in Fairfield whilst mom stayed in Waterville until the house was complete. While waiting she had Chester … in Waterville.

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