Where were the birthers in 1881?

President Chester Arthur was something of a border-crosser in his day.

Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States.

Pssst! Did you hear the one about the president who wasn’t born in the United States? Fiddled with his birth rec­ords? Was really a foreigner, so shouldn’t have risen to the White House?

No, Decoder is not talking about President Obama. That stuff about him being born in Kenya seems, ah, spurious. We are referring to Chester Alan Arthur. The first (and so far only) Canadian president of the United States.


To be eligible to be president, states the Constitution, you have to be a “natural born citizen.” Plus, you must have lived in the US for 14 years.

Chester Arthur was a pliable New York Republican whose bearing and whiskers made him look like a Victorian Captain Kangaroo. Dragooned into serving as vice president under James Garfield, he got the top job after Garfield was assassinated in 1881.

It’s unlikely that Arthur’s parents were US citizens. His father was an Irish-born preacher, his mother the descendant of a family of British subjects. But Arthur himself was born in Fairfield, Vt., in 1830, earning him the “natural born” stamp of citizenship approval.

So goes the official story.

But Arthur had six siblings and 12 childhood residences, including at least two in Quebec. The Arthur family appears constantly to have moved back and forth across state and national borders. Some researchers believe the future 21st president of the United States was actually born in 1830, in his grandparents’ house in Dunham Flats, in what was then called Lower Canada.

Skeptics hold that after Republican leaders pressed him for proof of his US citizenship prior to picking him for vice president, Arthur scooted off to Canada to ensure that no documents tied him to the Frozen North, eh? Then he adopted the birth date and location of an older brother who had died young.

Today, Vermont officials still claim Arthur as one of their own. Records from that era are scanty, so we’ll probably never know the truth.

As president, Arthur became a reformer. This earned him the enmity of the party bosses. In 1884, the GOP passed him over and picked former House Speaker James Blaine as its candidate.

So, Canadian or not, Chester Arthur is the last incumbent US president to submit his name for renomination – and lose.


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