Imagine this: a prominent politician, who has risen meteorically in his political career, suddenly finds himself within striking distance of the White House. There is, however, one problem: unbeknownst to all but a few people, it turns out that this man, who is now unquestionably an American citizen, was born in another country, which would make him, according to Article II of the U.S. Constitution, ineligible to serve as President. Unwilling to be tripped up by this minor problem, the politician sweeps the whole issue under the rug and pretends to scoff at suggestions that he’s foreign born; a few lucky and intrepid people, though, know the terrible truth. WAIT! STOP! HE CAN’T BE PRESIDENT!
Sound familiar? If you were a political junkie in the 1880s, it certainly would. This was the sordid tale spun by Arthur P. Hinman, a New York lawyer, shortly before the election of 1880, and the target was Chester A. Arthur. Mr. Arthur, who unquestionably possessed the most awesome set of mutton chop sideburns ever sported by a chief executive, was then Collector of the Port of New York, and had been named the 1880 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate to run on the ticket with Ohio congressman James A. Garfield. Hinman’s contention was that Arthur had been secretly born in Ireland and immigrated to the U.S. while still a teenager. Official records show that Chester Arthur was born on October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont. BUT WAIT! IT’S A CONSPIRACY! ARTHUR IS SECRETLY AN ENGLISHMAN! (Ireland was, in 1829 and still in 1880, a British possession).
There was just one problem: the story was completely made up. There wasn’t a shred of evidence to substantiate it. Hinman was a political operative paid by New York City Democrats, who were notoriously ruthless in the Gilded Age, to smear Arthur’s name and bring down the Republican opposition. (Note: although Arthur was running for Vice-President, not President, federal law makes clear that one cannot be elected Vice-President without possessing the same qualifications for President).
Sadly for Hinman and the other Chester Arthur Birthers, the New York Sun investigated the story and printed a full refutation on September 20, 1881. Their timing was fortuitous. A day earlier Arthur had taken the oath of office as the nation’s 21st President. Garfield, while walking through the waiting room of a train station, was shot in the back by a raving lunatic called Charles G. Guiteau, who, the moment after firing the shot, shouted to all assembled, “I am a Stalwart! Arthur is President!” He was a little premature. The shooting happened on July 2, and Garfield lay in agony for most of the sweltering summer of 1881, finally perishing on September 19, not directly from Guiteau’s bullet, but more from the malpractice of his own doctors who couldn’t resist poking around his gaping bullet hole with dirty instruments. Thanks, Doc!
After Hinman’s original story was deflated by the Sun, he tried a new tack. WAIT! I WAS WRONG! ARTHUR WASN’T BORN IN IRELAND, HE WAS BORN IN CANADA! That’ll work, right? After all, Fairfield, Vermont is only 15 miles from the Canadian border. And in 1829 there could have been plenty of confusion about where the line between the U.S. and British-held Canada actually was. (There wasn’t; it was settled by two treaties, one in 1783, the other in 1814).
This theory didn’t catch fire either, and Hinman was already pretty well discredited. Arthur seems to have lied about his age at some point in his life, but he clearly did not lie about the place of his birth. There simply is nothing to suggest otherwise. (The title of this blog is somewhat misleading. Birth certificates were not routinely issued in the 1820s, at least not in the way they are today).
In the end, then, it is exactly as clear that Chester A. Arthur was born in Vermont as it is that that other President–the one who celebrates his 52nd birthday this week–was born in Hawaii. In fact, that other President, who does possess a genuine birth certificate proving beyond all doubt that he was born in Hawaii, has considerably more proof for his place of birth than Arthur did. Both the Chester Arthur and Barack Obama “Birther” controversies are equally bogus, but both, unfortunately, found a fair number of adherents among people who were pretty desperate to latch on to anything–however ridiculous–that offered a reed of hope that that guy would somehow magically turn out to be ineligible to hold office.
As somebody wise and famous once said, history doesn’t really repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
Read the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s discussion of the Chester Arthur “Birther” controversy here.