Chester Arthur: A Birthplace Controversy, 1880

Painted portrait of Chester Alan Arthur
Chester Alan Arthur / Ole Peter Hansen Balling / Oil on canvas, 1883 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Harry Newton Blue; Frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee

Chester Alan Arthur was born on October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont.  Both the date and the location of Arthur’s birth have been the subject of some speculation.

The man who would become the twenty-first American president was not a heroic type, nor was he modest, though he did understand politics and was quite capable of achieving both bureaucratic and political goals.  Arthur worked hard for the Republican Party, rising in the ranks through the New York political machine which was partly of his own creation.  Though he never saw combat, Chester Arthur preferred to be addressed as General Arthur, a title given him when he was a quartermaster general of New York state during the Civil War.

Arthur ascended to the presidency in the wake of James Garfield’s slow demise, Garfield having been a victim of an assassin’s bullet and poor ensuing medical treatment.  In his work Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics, biographer George Frederick Howe writes of an accusation cast upon Chester Alan Arthur before the election of 1880, in which Arthur was vice presidential candidate and James A. Garfield’s running mate:      

If in 1881 the American public was fairly well informed about Chester A. Arthur’s earliest years, it was because of an interesting hoax. A New York attorney, Arthur P. Hinman, startled the voters of the country shortly after the election of 1880 by interviews in which he accused General Arthur of being a British subject. To support the claim, he presented an elaborate story of Arthur’s birth, purporting to show that he had been born in Canada, of a British father and an American mother. The enterprising New York Sun investigated Hinman’s tale and published a complete refutation the day after Arthur took the oath as President. His origins were widely understood when he became the twenty-first President of the United States.   

Had Hinman’s tale been true, Arthur would have been ineligible to run for the United States executive office.  Article Two, Section One of the United States Constitution states that, “No person except a natural born citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President...” and it continues to say that person must be at least thirty-five years old and a resident of the United States for a minimum of fourteen years. 

Interestingly, “at the time of the adoption of this Constitution” (signed in September 1787), all of the men in that room who might have wished to become president would have had a difficult time with a literal interpretation of the phrases “natural born citizen of the United States” and “resident of the United States for fourteen years.”

How so?  First, after necessary ratifications, the Constitution became the basis for the federal government in 1789, and any man old enough to be eligible to be president at the time would have been a British citizen at birth if he was born in any of the colonies; if he was not born in the colonies, he would not be eligible at all. 

For example, a man such as Alexander Hamilton, born in the West Indies, was not eligible for the presidency under the Constitution.  As it was interpreted, however, a man such as George Washington—a man who was born in the colonies and who lived to see them become states—was eligible because he was a “natural born citizen.”  Second, in 1789, the United States was only thirteen years old as a nation, so it would not be possible for anyone to have been a citizen for fourteen years.

Though born close to Canada in the uppermost part of Vermont, Chester Arthur was certainly a “natural born citizen” of the United States.  To add to the mix, Arthur’s date of birth has also been questioned, some sources contending that he was born in 1829, others asserting that he was born in 1830.  It was Arthur’s own pride that produced this small historical discrepancy.   Biographer Thomas C. Reeves clarifies this problem noting that “the traditional date of 1830 is incorrect.  Arthur made himself a year younger, no doubt, out of simple vanity, sometime between 1870 and 1880.”

—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery


Howe, George Frederick.  Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter Century of Machine Politics.  New York: Ungar Publishing, 1935.

Reeves, Thomas C.  Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur.  New York: Knopf, 1975.