A president’s origins

Chester Alan Arthur. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Given the growth and proliferation of twenty-four-hour news networks offering instantaneous political commentary, nearly every American adult is likely aware of the (demonstrably false) allegation that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. As many also know, President Obama was easily able to provide records which thoroughly debunked the baseless narrative. This was not, however, the first time a United States president was faced with questions about his origin which were dispelled by supporting records.

Beginning in late 1880, then Vice President-elect Chester A. Arthur was alleged to be a native of Canada, and, therefore, ineligible to hold the office to which he had been elected. The charge was made by a New York attorney named Arthur P. Hinman, who would later publish a booklet entitled How a British Subject Became President of the United States. In the wake of the assassination of President James A. Garfield, Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States in September 1881. After three years of Arthur’s presidency, Himan finally published his booklet in 1884, shortly before that year’s presidential election, in an effort to prevent Arthur’s reelection. Hinman’s efforts were for naught as a lack of support and a waning desire to campaign for office led Arthur to opt out of running for reelection.[1]

The term ‘evidence’ in regard to Hinman’s work should invite skepticism, as historians in the years since Arthur’s death have roundly rejected Hinman’s theory. Despite this, contemporary accounts suggested that the claims were grounded in truth. One account stated that “the report that Chester A. Arthur is a native of Canada and not eligible for the vice presidency, is said to have taken shape substantial enough to require a congressional investigation.”[2]

Hinman’s ‘Research’

In December 1880, the St. Alban’s Messenger reported the arrival of A.P. Hinman in Chester A. Arthur’s birthplace, the town of Fairfield, Vermont. Hinman was described as likely a Democrat masquerading as a liberal Republican on a mission to uncover evidence of Arthur’s supposed Canadian birth.[3] The day after the initial account of Hinman’s arrival, the Messenger reported that he was known to have been connected with the Democratic National Convention in 1880, further supporting allegations of bias.[4] The source of any potential uncertainty regarding the location of Chester A. Arthur’s birth was likely a result of his family’s fairly frequent movement throughout northern Vermont and New York both before and after his birth. Chester A. Arthur’s father, William, a native of Ulster in northern Ireland, emigrated to Lower Canada ca. 1819-20 and married Malvina Stone in Dunham, Quebec in 1821.[5] The Arthurs’ eldest daughter, Regina, is known to have been born in Quebec, but the remainder of the Arthurs’ children were born in Vermont and New York.

The Arthur family resided in multiple towns in northern Vermont, including Burlington, Jericho, and Waterville, before settling in Fairfield, where Chester Alan Arthur was born.[6] After Chester’s birth, the family continued to move through Vermont and northern New York before finally removing to the Schenectady area. The family’s constant movement made locating records verifying the birth of their children particularly challenging and consequently stoked the accusations made by Hinman and others.

The Arthur family resided in multiple towns in northern Vermont, including Burlington, Jericho, and Waterville, before settling in Fairfield, where Chester Alan Arthur was born.

Within the first two pages of Hinman’s booklet, he lays out his theory as to how Chester A. Arthur covertly hid his nativity in order to avoid being deemed ineligible for the presidency. Hinman states that Arthur first sent an associate to Canada to verify that records of his birth there could not be found. Once this was confirmed he suggested that Chester A. Arthur chose Fairfield, Vermont, the town where his deceased brother was born, as his place of birth.[7] Hinman goes on to claim that the Arthurs had a son, William Chester Alan Arthur, born in Dunham, Quebec, on either 16 or 18 March 1828, while Malvina was visiting her parents’ home.[8]

The theory further proposes that the Arthurs had another son, Chester Abell Arthur, named in honor of Dr. Chester Abell and born in November 1830 in Fairfield. Hinman confuses his information at this point, as Chester Alan Arthur was actually named after Chester Abell as well as his grandfather, Alan Arthur. Regardless, Hinman dismisses those who claim to have been aware of the birth of this son in November 1830 as “probably mistaken,” as the boy supposedly died while Malvina was visiting Burlington. No evidence is offered to substantiate the claims of the death of this child (who would, in fact, be the future president, as the elder William Chester Alan Arthur did not exist).[9]

Hinman also claims that at the time of his son’s death, William Arthur was so poor that he could not pay to bury the child, a notion he seemingly fabricated as a way to explain a lack of death or burial records for this child.[10] According to Hinman, his book contains “a portion of the affidavits, narratives, and letters of divers [sic] persons, in relation to the birth-place of our now acting President.”[11] The book then proceeds to offer quotations, many of which simply confirm the lack of definitive records or are personal anecdotes. One of the only people to confirm Hinman’s suspicions was a man named J.H. Corey, who said he was the brother-in-law of Malvina (Stone) Arthur’s brother.[12]

Further suspicious claims are also made, including one from a “Mr. Baker,” who intimated that he knew of William Arthur having a son who died young, but he could not remember the name of this son.[13] Evidence was difficult, if not impossible, to come by, as made apparent by one of Hinman’s associates, Lindal Corey, who wrote “I have found it up-hill work so far, as the parties I have consulted are nearly all strongly prejudiced against the Democratic party.”[14] This statement attributes the absence of clear evidence to bias against their chosen political party.

Despite presenting little in the way of convincing evidence, Hinman published his findings prior to the 1884 election. While the work attracted a mild amount of attention, the suggestion that Chester A. Arthur was ineligible to be President of the United States was roundly rejected shortly after it was introduced.

How the Records Prove Arthur’s Birthplace

The record of Chester Alan Arthur’s birth from his family Bible. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

While a formal record of Arthur’s birth has not been located and perhaps never existed, reflecting his family’s frequent moves, numerous documents support the widely-held belief that the future president was born in the United States. Census records from 1850,[15] 1860,[16] and 1880[17] all indicate that he was born in the State of Vermont, while his Civil War draft registration record and the 1870 census give his birthplace as New York.[18] Many of these records date to well before Arthur had any presidential ambitions and would have had no reason to conceal his place of birth. A family bible also confirms Chester A. Arthur’s date and place of birth.[19] Later records further support this notion, including the passport application of his son, Chester Alan Arthur Jr., which firmly states his father was born in Fairfield, Vermont.[20]

Another fact which bears mentioning is that the United States Constitution does not officially define the term “natural-born citizen.”  Because of this, even if Chester A. Arthur had, in fact, been born in Canada, his mother had long been a resident of Vermont prior to his birth, which would have provided him with a strong case to be a “natural-born citizen.” Similar claims have been made for others as recently as 2016, including by Senator Ted Cruz, who was born in Calgary, Alberta to a mother who was an American citizen. Cruz’s Canadian birth is a well-established fact, and it has been largely accepted that Cruz meets the qualifications to run for president.

In nearly two hundred years, no record of Chester A. Arthur’s birth has been located in Vermont. Despite this, all the surviving evidence suggests he was born in Fairfield, as he had claimed throughout his life. While the efforts of Arthur P. Hinman to prevent the election of Chester A. Arthur were unsuccessful, as his theories were by and large ignored by the American people, his work still stands as an early example of a politically motivated claim of false nativity, a narrative which has reemerged in more recent times.

Notes

[1] Thomas C. Reeves, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur (New York: Knopf, 1975), 268-71.

[2] “The Report that Chester A. Arthur…,” The Opelousas Courier (Louisiana), 19 February 1881, 1.

[3] “Investigating the Vice-President Elect,” St. Alban’s Daily Messenger, 21 December 1880, 3.

[4] “Home Matters,” St. Alban’s Daily Messenger, 22 December 1880, 3.

[5] Thomas C. Reeves, “The Diaries of Malvina Arthur: Windows Into The Past of Our 21st President,” Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society 38: 3 [1970]: 179.

[6] Reeves, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur, 4.

[7] Arthur P. Hinman, How a British Subject Became President of the United States (New York, 1884), 3-4.

[8] Hinman, How a British Subject Became President of the United States, 9-11.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., 13.

[11] Ibid., 36.

[12] Ibid., 58.

[13] Ibid., 63.

[14] Ibid., 65.

[15] Household of Wm. Arthur, Hoosick, Rensselaer, New York, 1850 United States Census, Roll: 585; Page: 354b.

[16] Household of C.A. Arthur, New York Ward 18 District 3, New York, New York, 1860 United States Census, Page: 891; Family History Library Film: 803813.

[17] Household of Chester A. Arthur, New York City, New York, New York, 1880 United States Census, Roll: 889; Page: 625D; Enumeration District: 474.

[18] National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Consolidated Lists of Civil War Draft Registration Records, Record Group: 110, Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau (Civil War); Consolidated Enrollment Lists, 1863-1865 (Civil War Union Draft Records), NAI: 4213514, Archive Volume Number: 1 of 5, pg. 15 and Household of C. A. Arthur, New York Ward 21 District 13, New York, New York, 1870 United States Census, Roll: 889; Page: 625D; Enumeration District: 474.

[19] Arthur, Chester Alan. Chester Alan Arthur Papers: Series 4: Addition, 1846 to 1960; Miscellany, Circa 1857 to 1960; Arthur Family Bible, Photocopy of Pages Relating to Births, Marriages, and Deaths, Circa 1857 to 1937 Bible in Rare Book Division. – 1937, 1857. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mss11213081/.

[20] U.S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington D.C., Roll No. 2599, Certificates: 456850-457349, 11 July 1924, Chester Alan Arthur.

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.

4 thoughts on “A president’s origins

  1. However I noticed a discrepancy because he has frequently been stated to have been born in 1831 but the Bible record says 1829. That is enough to give pause to the discredited theory. Secondly, wasn’t the mother an American citizen? Was that enough to make him by definition an American?

  2. President Obama fueled the flames of fire regarding his birth because he kept producing documents created well after the fact. As a genealogist, it was really easy to check the birth announcements in the Honolulu Star which had his birth announcement there at the appropriate time, place, and date.

    1. I think the issue with the Honolulu Star was the reluctance of non-genealogists to grant a published birth announcement the same weight as a registered birth — although both were contemporary documents.

  3. Great post! I got several letters, emails, and calls asking about the false allegation of Obama’s birthplace back in 2008 and 2009. Obama was the first presidential candidate to show a copy of his birth certificate publicly (and the copy shown in 2008, called a “certification of live birth,” was the only document anyone born in Hawaii could receive from the state’s health department, the photostat copy shown in 2011 was made by special request after the absurd conspiracy theories continued for years).

    As a result of all that, I began collecting copies presidential birth certificates where they were public records or had been reported, the first president (chronologically) with a contemporary full page birth certificate was Lyndon Johnson (1908 in Texas,” recorded only as “Johnson,” boy). Several presidents around this time had delayed certificates of birth – Kennedy, born in Massachusetts in 1917, issued in 1933; Nixon, born in California in 1913, issued in 1942; and Reagan, born in Illinois in 1911, issued in 1942.

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