19th Century Birtherism

President Obama is not the first president to be at the center of a birthplace controversy.  More than 100 years before Obama’s political enemies claimed he was born in Canada, President Chester A. Arthur’s enemies claimed he was born in Canada.  They may have been on to something.

Arthur’s father emigrated from Ireland to Quebec in 1818 or 1819.  Arthur’s mother was born in Vermont.  The two met while Arthur’s father was teaching in southern Quebec, and married in Quebec in 1821.  Their first child was born in Quebec shortly thereafter. 

Arthur’s father was a teacher, which led to a peripatetic existence, as the family followed him from one job to another.  During the 1820s, the family moved from Quebec to a series of towns in Vermont.  Eventually, Arthur’s father gave up teaching and became a Free Will Baptist minister.

The official story is that the Arthurs moved to Fairfield, Vermont in 1828.  Arthur claimed to have been born there two years later, in 1830.  In fact, the Arthur family Bible says he was born in 1829.  There are no official documents stating where he was born; Vermont did not begin keeping records of birth until 1857.

When Arthur ran for Vice-President as Garfield’s running mate in 1880, rumors cropped up that he was born in Dunham, Quebec, the town where Arthur’s father had emigrated to, and where Arthur’s parents were married.  Democrats hired Arthur Hinman, a lawyer, to investigate Arthur’s birthplace.  Hinman published a book, “How a British Subject Became President of the United States.”   According to Hinman, Arthur’s mother was visiting her father, who then lived in Dunham, Quebec, when Arthur was born (he claims Arthur was born in 1828).  A younger brother, who died in infancy, was born in 1830.  Himan claims that Arthur appropriated the birthdate and birthplace of the younger brother. 

Hinman’s investigation was surprisingly thorough, and his book well written.  Of course, he was not impartial, so his account must be viewed with some skepticism.  But neither Arthur nor his supporters released a competing account, and there are no official records supporting the claim that Arthur was born in the United States.  Moreover, it doesn’t help that Arthur lied about the date he was born.  So the question of where Arthur was born is likely to remain a mystery.




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