Chester A. Arthur: America’s Canadian President?

The last two presidential elections in the United States have both featured birther controversies. The first such controversy affected President Barack Obama, and the second affected Senator Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries. What many people don’t know, however, is that this was not the United States’ first birther scandal. The first such accusations that a president was foreign-born were hurled at Chester A. Arthur, America’s 21st president.

Arthur stated that he was born in northern Vermont, close to the United States’ border with Canada, in either 1829 or 1830 (historians are pretty sure it was 1829). His father, William Arthur, was a Baptist minister who brought his family back and forth between Canada and the U.S. on preaching missions. Many suspected that Chester Arthur had actually been born in Quebec, mere miles from the U.S. border, while his father was on such a mission.

When President James Garfield selected him as his vice president, no one ever thought he would eventually hold the highest elected office in the land. Although rumors swelled that he was not a U.S.-born American citizen, Garfield’s good health led most everyone to believe that Arthur’s citizenship would never be a real issue. Then, Garfield was assassinated in 1881, and Arthur assumed the presidency. If he had actually been born in Canada, he would not be eligible to be president.

Some people asserted that there were three Arthur brothers: William Chester Alan Arthur (the future president), who was born in Quebec; Chester Abell Arthur, born in Vermont; and Williams Arthur, Jr., also born in Vermont. The story goes that Chester Abell died and the William Chester Alan appropriated his dead brother’s birth certificate and dropped the “William” in his name so he could have American citizenship. Supposedly, no death certificate existed for Chester Abell, since he died as an infant and his body was sold to a medical school, making the older son’s ruse easier to undertake.

Muddying the waters further is the fact that Chester Arthur’s father was a British citizen, having been born in Ireland. If he had, in fact, been born abroad with only one parent possessing U.S. citizenship, he would be a British subject and not a U.S. citizen at all.

Of course, just like today’s birther controversies, the one facing President Arthur was equally ridiculous. There was no record of a Chester Abell Arthur to be found anywhere. And donating a body to medical research would not have negated the need for a death certificate. In addition to this, President Arthur’s father was serving on the school board for Fairfield, Vermont at the time of Chester’s birth. He could not have been living in Canada at the time, then.

It appears that, just as today, the birther scandal surrounding President Arthur was created by the opposition to discredit him as a candidate. But Arthur did not let the rumors get to him, and he turned out to be a pretty decent president. For one thing, he is credited with reforming the U.S. Civil Service, instituting merit-based hiring over partisanship.

Though no birth records can be found for Chester Arthur, historians pretty much all agree that he was born in Vermont. It just goes to show that scandal in politics is nothing new, and it has always been ridiculous.

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