The 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.