Obama fringe beliefs center around the meaning of “natural born citizen” (a qualification for the presidency in Article 2 of the U. S. Constitution). One such theory says Barack Obama can’t be president because his father was a British citizen, not an American citizen. Could some other US President have been in the same boat? It turns out that there was one, Chester A. Arthur.
Does this historical precedent settle the argument against citizen-only parentage? No. In a perverse consistency, the the theory claims that Chester A. Arthur wasn’t a legitimate president either, a “usurper” no less. This appears on Leo C. Donofrio’s Natural Born Citizen site.
Donofrio says: Because Chester Arthur covered up his British citizenship, any precedent he might have set that the country has had a President born of an alien father is nullified completely as Chester Arthur was a usurper to the Presidency. He wouldn’t have been on the ticket if it was public knowledge. Nobody knew Arthur was a British subject because nobody looked in the right place for the truth.
Facts: Chester A. Arthur was born in Vermont to an Irish immigrant father who was not naturalized as a US Citizen until Chester was a teenager. Newspaper accounts, some attributed directly to Arthur, contain false information. The specific false information is: the year of Arthur’s birth, the age of Arthur’s father when Chester was born, the age at which Arthur’s father entered the US, that Arthur’s father had emigrated from Ireland directly to the US, and that Arthur’s mother had never left the US.
Theory: Chester A. Arthur knew he wasn’t qualified to be vice president and in his desperation, laid a trail of false information leading investigators to a spurious theory of a Canadian birth, and away from the real scandal, that Arthur’s father was not a citizen. The ploy was so effective that a book was even published claiming that Arthur was born in Canada (and hence ineligible to be President). The theory hinges on two points: Arthur intentionally led investigators astray and Arthur believed birth to a non-citizen father made him ineligible to be president.
Analysis: To say that “he wouldn’t have been on the ticket” had his father’s citizenship status been known is speculation. The case has not been proven that the father’s citizenship status made Arthur ineligible in the first place, nor that anyone at the time would have thought so. Contemporary and historical accounts at the time of the Arthur election only mention birth place as the determiner of presidential qualification. Arthur did say he was born in 1830 instead of 1829. Newspaper accounts also have him giving dates a few years off for his father’s emigration from Ireland and his father’s age when Arthur was born. The false dates he gave were in no way inconsistent with the fact that Arthur’s father became a citizen many years after Arthur was born.
A significant blow to the false trail theory is that the incorrect birth information had been published as early as June 1880, months before the investigator started sniffing around Arthur’s citizenship. The New York Times carried a biography of candidate Arthur on June 9, 1880 which began:
Gen. Chester A. Arthur was born in Franklin county Vt., Oct. 5, 1830. He is the oldest son of a family of two sons and five daughters. His father was the Rev. Dr. William Arthur, a baptist clergyman, who emigrated to this country from County Antrim, Ireland in his eighteenth year and died Oct. 27, 1875, in Newtonville, near Albany.
Rather than concluding that the lawyer traveling around trying to get dirt on Arthur’s place of birth didn’t check the alleged second half of the “natural born citizen” qualification was confounded by some dates, it is much more reasonable to conclude that he didn’t believe such a parental citizenship requirement existed because according to most constitutional scholars and government officials, there is no such parental citizenship requirement. On December 12, 2008 John McCain adviser, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, wrote: “Every child born in the United States is a natural-born United States citizen except for the children of diplomats.”
Therefore, it was no secret where Arthur’s father came from, and no assertion in this biography that he ever became a citizen. While there were accusations that Arthur was born in Canada (or even in Scotland!), no one seemed interested in his father’s citizenship status. Despite misinformation on the Internet, Arthur never made any statement about the date of his father’s naturalization.
Donofrio has two biographies of Arthur upon which he relies for most of the material. One is a lightly-researched modern one and the other is the exhaustive definitive biography by Thomas C. Reeves. He relies heavily on the light biography and lightly on the heavy one. In some cases the text from Reeves cited is actually derived from political attack book called How a British Subject Became President of the United States, by Mr. Alan P. Hinman a Democrat operative and lawyer hired to get dirt on Arthur.
One interesting aspect of this discussion relates to a fallacy I find from time to time: “our ancestors were stupid.” Donofrio claims that proof of Arthur’s ineligibility was right in front of the investigators but they didn’t know where to look. While our ancestors indeed had no digital watches, there was no shortage of intelligent people in the past.
[Yes, I am aware that James A. Garfield was assassinated, not Chester A. Arthur. This is a modern-day character assassination.]
I want to thank the visitor to this web site who referred me to a delightful commentary on Chester A. Arthur and his problems with citizenship detractors on the Venia Legendi blog. I recommend it heartily.
After a short wait, a copy of Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur has arrived through interlibrary loan and I have started to look at it. As I go through the book, I will make progress notes here.
The first surprise came, surprisingly, from the preface. Cast a glance at this from Leo Donofrio’s Natural Born Citizen blog:
The definitive biography on Chester Arthur is “Gentleman Boss” by Thomas Reeves. It’s an exhaustive reference. Many of the blanks in Chester Arthur’s legend were filled in by this book which utilized interviews with family members and authentic documents like the Arthur family Bible. It was a necessary work since old Chester Arthur was a very wily protector of his strange history. He burned all of his papers. (See page 2365.)
One might get the impression that the burning of Arthur’s papers citation was from the Reeves biography (I certainly did), but a book of 500 pages doesn’t have a page 2365, and indeed the reference comes from somewhere else. The words “wily protector” and “strange history” do not appear in either source. But let’s get back to the burning of papers. In the Preface to the Reeves biography (which Denofrio and I and others agree is the definitive biography), I also found reference to the destruction of papers, although cast in a somewhat different light:
Disinterest alone does not account for Arthur’s obscurity, for he scrupulously attempted to keep aloof from the press during his years in politics [most of which were before his presidency] and ordered the great bulk of his personal and official papers destroyed shortly before his death. Many of his closest associates took similar steps to protect themselves from historians.
But not everything was destroyed including the vital ones from the 1880 election
…I undertook their examination and discovered that they were Arthur’s personal letterbooks from the campaign of 1880–a contest in which the New Yorker was both the vice-presidential candidate of the Republican Party and the chairman of the New York Republican State Committee.
…came to light…relevant collections at the New York Historical Society and the Library of Congress, and Arthur letters were scattered in archives all across the country. Papers of Cabinet members and close friends had also surfaced, and it was not long before I realized that I was faced with a fascinating, intensely human, and significant story…The search led to the former President’s grandson, who owned boxes bulging with family documents and photographs…His family Bible and White House scrapbooks were in New York City…
Reeves pp xv-xvi.
The prosecuting attorney (Donofrio) did not show what in Arthur’s papers was burned that might shed light on the accusation, namely that Arthur told lies for the purpose of confusing investigators so that they would not look into his father’s naturalization status. Rather the remark is a general character slur on our former President; “he burned his papers–he must be bad.”
The whole business of Arthur’s citizenship in the campaign of 1880 is given but a few sentences in the Reeves biography:
…Furthermore, Arthur’s legal right to be on the Republican ticket was challenged. A New York attorney named Arthur P. Hinman was hired, apparently by Democrats, to explore rumors that Arthur had been born in a foreign country, was not a natural-born citizen of the United States, and thus was, by the Constitution, ineligible for the vice-presidency. By mid-August, Hinman was claiming that Arthur was born in Ireland and had been brought to the United States by his father when we was fourteen. Arthur denied the charge and said that his mother was a New Englander who had never left her native country–a statement every member of the Arthur family knew was untrue. The Irish birthplace story was palpably false and was abandoned by Hinman as the campaign progressed. In its place he alleged that Arthur was born in Canada, just across the Vermont border where his mother often visited her parents. little attention was paid to the charge during the campaign of 1880, for Garfield was a young, robust man who could easily be expected to fill one or two terms in the White House.
Gentleman Boss, p. 202-203 (shorter version on Natural Born Citizen blog).
What follows is an account of the Democrat’s attempt to torpedo Garfield’s campaign by planting a forged document. Oh, those sneaky Democrats! (This was very reminiscent of the Nixon election dirty trick of sending out false information on opposition campaign stationery.)
And that’s all there is about the whole business in the Reeves biography. Note the context of the false statement by Arthur about his mother was to rebut the false claim of Hinman that he was born in Ireland. And it is only BARELY false. Arthur’s mother only ventured a scant 15 miles into Canada (Reeves p. 4). While Arthur was not truthful, still the point he wanted to get across (that he had not been born in Ireland) was true. There’s no association with his father’s naturalization status in this remark.
And so, while Gentleman Boss is the acknowledged definitive biography of Arthur, except for some birth dates and information about the dates of Arthur’s emigration, that is all we hear from Reeves on Donofrio’s
Now what I find interesting about Reeves, and the newspaper article Donofrio conveniently provides from The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper is that they were talking about qualifications to be President. Reeves used the phrase “natural born citizen.” But it is always about place of birth, about not being born in the United States and nothing at all about parentage.
…the assertion having been made, and commented on, that Mr. Arthur was not born in the United States, in which case he would be constitutionally ineligible for the high office for which he has been nominated…
The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper Date: Aug 15, 1880; Page: 4
Let’s compare the newspaper account of what Arthur said with the truth:
|Father Born in||Ireland||Ireland|
|Father emigrated||1814||probably 1818-1819|
|Father’s age at Arthur’s birth||40||33|
Now the key point it would seem to me if one were to be trying to make it seem that the father had been in the United States so long that his naturalization could be assumed was the date of immigration compared to Arthur’s birth date. In Arthur’s version Arthur’s father had been in the United States for 16 years at Arthur’s birth but actually it was more like 10-11 years. The father’s age is irrelevant to his naturalization. 10-11 years is quite long enough to become naturalized. So whatever Arthur said, it did not turn an impossible naturalization scenario into a possible one.
One might ask whether the newspaper took accurate notes in the interview or just repeated the errors from the new early York Times biography of Arthur the preceding June.
There is an additional biographical discrepancy, that of the year of Arthur’s birth. Here’s what Reeves says about this:
…On October 5, 1929, Malvina Arthur gave birth to her fifth child. (The tradition date of 1830 is incorrect. Arthur made himself a year younger, no doubt out of simple vanity, some time between 1870 and 1880.
Reeves p. 5
Hardly, in the view of the definitive biography, a lie designed to throw off the hunt for his natural born citizenship during the 1880 campaign. Given that the elder Arthur didn’t naturalize until 14 years later (1843), the one year difference in birth years hardly matters. The other fact is the 1830 date is so firmly established (even in modern historical markers), it could hardly have confused anyone during the election. It is only known now through examination of the Arthur family Bible.
Unless one subscribes to the “our forefathers were really stupid” fallacy, one would think that a lawyer, Hinman, who was hired to prove Arthur ineligible to be president (and went so far as to write a nearly 100 page book about it!) would have made simple inquiries as to the father’s immigration status if he thought it mattered. Donofrio, on the other hand, finds the information in the table above so mind-numbingly confusing that it inevitably made Hinman unable to see what was right in front of his face. (Maybe they didn’t have tables back in 1880.)
The time line also causes problems for the prosecution’s case. Again, the lies of Arthur supposed were made to confuse those looking into his “natural bornness.” However, for a lie to confuse, there must be two contradictory versions. The information given by Arthur in the Brooklyn Eagle in August is consistent with a biography (not interview) of Arthur in the New York Times on June 9 (above). Until Hinman came digging around some months later, there was no confusion over the dates of Arthur’s birth or the age of his father when he came to the US. It was only after a political operative started snooping around did confusion arise. To suggest Arthur lied for he purpose of throwing off investigators presumes that Arthur could have foretold that there would be any investigators. None of the falsehoods Arthur told about his biography are in no way inconsistent with the true fact that his father naturalized many years after Arthur’s birth.
But, saving the best for last, none of these accusations against Arthur make any sense if Arthur thought himself qualified. Arthur was a lawyer from New York and just possibly he was familiar with another New York case from 1844, Lynch v. Clarke, where the judge opined:
Suppose a person should be elected President who was native born, but of alien parents, could there be any reasonable doubt that he was eligible under the constitution? I think not.
In 1880, a political operative and lawyer raised false accusations that Chester A. Arthur was ineligible to be president because he was born in Canada. In 2008 two lawyers are raising false accusations about Barack Obama’s eligibility, one claiming (like Hinman) Obama was not born in the United States, and one claiming that eligibility requires two citizen parents.
- Obama Conspiracy Theories articles on Chester Arthur.