Friday, September 23, 2016

Chester Arthur and the Birther Scandal of 1881

Chester A. Arthur as a young lawyer.
Courtesy of the National Portrait
Gallery at the Smithsonian.
The early 1880s were a turbulent time for American politics. In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes declined to seek re-election leaving the task to James Garfield who took office on March 4th, 1881. Five months later, Garfield would be shot by assassin Charles Guiteau. Garfield lingered until September 19th when his health took a turn for the worst and he passed away. This left the presidency open to Garfield's vice-president, Chester Arthur. One year with three presidents. Surprisingly, this had happened once before in 1841 with a similar situation when Martin Van Buren was defeated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died shortly after his inauguration and vice-president John Tyler took office. As a former supporter and benefactor of the spoils system, Chester Arthur did not instill the most confidence in people. His bad political reputation aside, one other thing caught the eye of his critics, Chester's birthplace.

Although Chester Arthur lived in Schenectady, he wasn't born there. His father, William Arthur was an Irish immigrant, Baptist minister, and a teacher who often traveled from his home in Fairfield, Vermont over the border to Canada to teach and preach. Malvina Arthur, Chester's mother, also had family in Canada who she stayed with often. This, combined with the fact that his family frequently moved created problems for Chester during his nomination for vice-presidency.

Chester lived at this house on the corner of Liberty and Yates
while attending Union. Later on, the building would
become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Photo Collection
By 1832, the Arthurs left Fairfield and eventually made their way over to Schenectady, New York. The family lived on the corner of Liberty and Yates Street in a house that would eventually become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Chester enrolled at Union College in 1845 and remained there until his graduation in 1848. Arthur's first foray into politics came during his teenage years. Chester firmly supported the Whig Party and even threw a few punches for them when he got into a brawl with students who supported James K. Polk. In addition to his schoolyard political melees, young Chet also helped throw the Union school bell into the Erie Canal as a prank.

After his education at Union, Chester Arthur moved around New York and Vermont where he taught and studied the law at State and National Law School in Ballston Spa. Chester moved to New York City to work at the law office of Erastus D. Culver who was an abolitionist lawyer and friend of the Arthur family. After being admitted to the bar, Arthur joined the firm which became Culver, Parker, and Arthur where he worked on several anti-slavery cases. One of the most notable was the case of Elizabeth Jennings Graham who was denied a seat on a trolley because she was black. Winning this case resulted in the desegregation of New York City streetcar lines.

The Chester A. Arthur statue at Union College.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
During the Civil War, Arthur was commissioned as a brigadier general in the New York State militia's quartermaster department where he excelled at the position and was promoted to quartermaster general. After the Civil War is when Arthur really began getting involved in politics. Arthur became good friends with Utica's Roscoe Conkling who assisted Arthur in getting lucrative positions. Arthur would be appointed to the Collector's position at the Customs House at the Port of New York where he made over $50,000 a year, which was more than the President and more than enough to fund Arthur's growing pants collection.

While Arthur had many friends in Washington, President Rutherford B. Hayes was not one of them. Hayes pledged to reform the spoils system that directly benefited Arthur, Conkling, and the like. Arthur was able to survive in the political arena by campaigning for politicians who would turn a blind eye to Hayes' attempted reforms and appoint Conkling's men.

Campaign poster for the Garfield and Arthur ticket. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1880,  Hayes had declined to enter the presidential race which left the Republican ticket open. James Garfield was the popular choice for the Republican nominee and Levi P. Morton was his first choice for VP. Morton consulted with Roscoe Conkling who convinced him to decline the position. Garfield's supporters then went to Arthur who accepted against Conkling's wishes. After Garfield's assassination by Charles Guiteau, Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States where he exceeded both parties expectations by reforming Civil Service.

"I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damned business." - Chester A. Arthur to a temperance reformer.

Back to the birther controversy! Republican bosses reportedly wanted proof of Arthur's birthplace before he was sworn in, which he either could or would not produce. The Democrats caught wind of this and hired a lawyer and political opponent of Arthur named Arthur Hinman to investigate Chester's birth. At first, Hinman accused Chester of being born in Ireland and immigrating when he was 14 years old. This was proven to be untrue and easily disproven. Hinman wasn't done with Arthur yet, though

He dug a little more into this created controversy and found Arthur family acquaintances who claimed that Chester was born in Canada. While hearsay from some friends doesn't seem like the best evidence, it was good enough for Hinman who wrote a short book called How a Subject of the British Empire Became President of the United States. Neither of Hinman's claims gained traction in the public eye, nor did they seem to affect the Garfield/Arthur ticket. Chester Arthur always insisted that he was born in Fairfield, Vermont.  As may be expected, Vermonters claim Chester A. Arthur as the first president from Vermont, while some Canadians think Chester was the first Canadian president. A 2009 article in the Boston Globe looked into this controversy and found no record of Chester Arthur's exact birthplace so we may never know exactly where Arthur was born.

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