Chester Arthur and the Original Birther Conspiracy


where's the birth certificate?
Library of Congress

Given the brouhaha over the "born in Kenya" claim in a lit agency's bio of Barack Obama and the Arizona Secretary of State looking for more proof Obama was born in Hawaii, here's a reminder that President Obama wasn't the first president dogged by rumors of foreign birth, a 2005 (pre-Obama!) blog post explaining the controversy surrounding Chester Arthur's place of birth:

Chester Alan Arthur (he pronounced his middle name al-AN) was, according to the official account, born in Fairfield, Vermont, Oct. 5, 1830, the son of Reverend William and Malvina (Stone) Arthur (his gravestone confirms this date). One biographer, Thomas C. Reeves, has concluded that he was born a year earlier—on Oct. 5, 1829— and that Arthur changed the date "no doubt out of simple vanity."

Changing his year of birth is forgivable (Arthur was well beyond the age requirement for the presidency); but could he have changed his place of birth as well? Arthur P. Hinman thought so. Hinman, a New York lawyer, brought the issue to the attention of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a letter early in August, 1880, while Arthur was yet a candidate for the Vice-Presidency. Arthur evidently had flip-flopped on the issue in the past. One article, dated August 13, quotes a leading Republican in a way reminiscent of more recent campaigns: "Why in —— don't the General come out and say where he was born, and put an end to all this mystery."

Hinman first theorized that General Arthur was born "in Belfast or Aberdeen," before his parents emigrated to America. Arthur could easily dismiss this theory, for he had always maintained that his father emigrated at eighteen years of age—before he married and had children.

Hinman pushed on. The following story appeared in the New York Times of Dec. 22, 1880:


ST. ALBANS, Vt., Dec. 21.—A stranger arrived here a few days ago, and registered at the American House as A. P. Hinman, of New-York. Since then he has been very busy in the adjoining town of Fairfield, ostensibly collecting materials for a biography of Vice-President-elect Arthur. He has privately stated to leading Democratic citizens, however, that he is employed by the Democratic National Committee to obtain evidence to show that Gen. Arthur is an unnaturalized foreigner. He claims to have discovered that Gen. Arthur was born in Canada, instead of Fairfield; that his name is Chester Allen instead of Chester Abell [sic]; that he was 50 years old in July instead of October, as has been stated, and generally that he is an alien and ineligible to the office of Vice-President.

Arthur Hinman would publish a book, How A British Subject Became President of the United States, the substance of which was related in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article dated June 2, 1884:

The main charge of the book is that William Chester Alan Arthur was born in Dunham Flats, Canada, on [sic] March, 1828, and that he represented himself to have been born at North Fairfield, Vermont, the birthplace of a younger brother, Chester Abell Arthur, who was born in 1830, and died a year later. It is stated that in 1834 when another son was born he received the name of William Arthur, Jr., and then the name William was dropped by William Chester Alan Arthur, and he was henceforth known as Chester Alan Arthur. The records, copies of which are given, show that in 1845 Chester Alan Arthur entered Union College, stating his age to be 16.

Reeves dismisses Hinman's theory, while admitting that President Arthur lied about his age. He cites the Arthur family Bible, held at the Library of Congress, which gives the President's year of birth as 1829, and makes no mention of a child named "Chester Abell.