Numerous candidates for both the presidency and vice presidency have faced questions regarding their eligibility for the top job based upon the Constitutional requirements for the position, which require a president to be a “natural born citizen of the United States.” Most allegations tend to dissipate quickly, but one has stuck around for over 150 years.
Chester Alan Arthur, the twenty-first President of the United States, has been the subject of swirling conspiracy theories dating back to his own lifetime. The most famous of these was that he had conspired with Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York to arrange the assassination of President James Garfield at the hands of Charles Guiteau in order to retard the progress of civil service reform. This inventive theory largely died out in the aftermath of Arthur’s inauguration, however, especially as he continued Garfield’s work towards civil service reform.
The theories regarding Arthur’s birth, however, never quite died out. Essentially, the theory that Chester A. Arthur was not a natural-born citizen rested on the background of his father. William Arthur was an Irish-born school teacher and preacher who settled in modern-day Quebec. While he frequently traveled to the United States, he was not a U.S. citizen during this time.
William Arthur later met Malvina Stone, with whom he eloped. While they later fled to Vermont, it is not clear whether Chester A. Arthur was born in Vermont or Quebec. The U.S. Information Service records that Chester A. Arthur was born on October 5, 1830. However, other sources have indicated that his birth year was actually 1829, and that Arthur used 1830 to make himself appear younger. However, could other factors be at play?
Some individuals in Arthur’s hometown in Fairfield, Vermont, did not believe that a Chester Alan Arthur had been born in their town, and that an individual named Chester Abell Arthur had instead been born in their town. Chester Abell Arthur, under this theory, died early in childbirth, and his Canadian-born brother assumed the deceased brother’s identity. Proponents often state that Chester A. Arthur was instead born in Dunham, Quebec, though a fire destroyed all birth records from the town, making the theory difficult to verify. There is likewise no record of the birth of a child named Chester A. Arthur in Fairfield, Vermont.
Some relatives of Chester A. Arthur believed this theory. For instance, one of his aunts believed Arthur was “born on British soil,” stating “there is no doubt that the son who died in Burlington is the one said to be born at Fairfield.” Other sources, such as Burke’s Presidential Families of the United States of America, also lent credence to the idea, suggesting that Chester A. Arthur “was probably born in Canada.”
Does it really matter whether Chester A. Arthur was born in Canada? Under modern interpretations of the “natural-born citizen” clause, it does not matter at all. Arthur’s mother, Malvini Stone Arthur, was born in Vermont. Given that she was clearly a U.S. citizen by birth, Chester A. Arthur would likewise be a natural-born U.S. citizen regardless of where he was born.
At the time of Arthur’s birth, however, this issue had not been settled. The Naturalization Acts in place at the time granted U.S. citizenship to the children of U.S. citizens born overseas, but did not speak of “natural born U.S. citizenship.” It is thus possible that Arthur would not have been considered a “natural-born U.S. citizen” at the time of his birth. However, it is more likely that, even if he was born in Canada, he was a natural-born U.S. citizen under contemporary understandings, given the language in the Naturalization Acts.
Chester A. Arthur probably was not a Canadian interloper after all. Americans can breathe a collective sigh of relief.