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Was there an American president who was born in Canada? Was there an American president who was born in Canada?
Was there an American president who was born in Canada?

According to the U.S constitution, a person can only become president if he or she is born in the United States. That's why there was some controversy about whether Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president, should have had the right to the job.

Arthur was officially listed as being born in Fairfield, Vermont, a town in the northwest corner of the state near the Canadian border. But over the years some people have argued that Arthur was in fact born across the border in Quebec. In fact, Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America says that despite the official birthplace, Arthur "was probably born in Canada." Other sources make the same claim, almost off-handedly, but argue that since his parents were U.S citizens Arthur's eligibility for the presidency wasn't challenged.

But in fact, his eligibility was challenged around 1881 when Arthur was the vice-presidential candidate running with James Garfield. Several of Arthur's political enemies spread rumours that he was born in Canada and should be disqualified from the race. According to Thomas C. Reeves, a biographer of Arthur's, the Democrats hired a New York attorney named Arthur Hinman to explore these rumours and make a report. Hinman seems to have gotten carried away because he came back saying that Arthur was born in Ireland and was brought to the U.S. as a boy of 14. However, Hinman abandoned this theory and later alleged that Arthur was born in Quebec (Lower Canada at the time) at his grandparents' house. Hinman says Arthur's mother often visited her parents in Dunham in Quebec. Hinman published a pamphlet in 1884 called "How A British Subject Became President of the United States."

Another biographer George Howe describes this theory as "an interesting hoax" that received little attention at the time. Because many people saw Garfield as a young, vital president, they probably didn't have to worry much about Arthur's background.

However, in 1881, Garfield was assassinated, and Arthur became president. Apparently one acquaintance was heard to say in disbelief, "Good God, Chet Arthur, President of the United States." Arthur had never held elected office in his life, but had been more of a backroom political figure. He also distinguished himself as a lawyer fighting a case in which he defended a black woman who had been kicked off a streetcar. His win in that case eventually led to the desegregation of the New York transportation system.

The day after Arthur took the presidential oath, the New York Sun ran an article refuting the claims about Arthur being born in Canada.

But there are interesting tidbits surrounding this story. First, several sources list Arthur's birth date as October 5, 1830, but Reeves said Arthur was actually born October 5, 1829 and changed the date out of vanity. Arthur's father was an Irish immigrant who first came to Canada, living in Stanstead and Dunham, Quebec and eventually preached in communities in both Quebec and Vermont. Arthur's mother, Malvina, did live in Quebec for a time and her parents lived there until the 1850s. As well, before he died, Arthur destroyed all his personal papers. And while Arthur was listed as being born in Fairfield, some residents believe he was really born in nearby Waterville, Vermont.

Reeve and other scholars (and most people of the time) dismiss Hinman's claim, but it was quite an elaborate story. According to Hinman, the Arthurs had three sons, William Chester Alan, who was born in Dunham, Quebec, Chester Abell who was born in Fairfield, and William born in Hinesburgh, Vermont. When the second William was born, William Chester dropped his "William" name and went by Chester Alan (he's the one who became president). He retained the named Chester because his other brother Chester Abell had died in infancy and so now the "Chester" name was available. He also appropriated the birth record of this second brother so that he could sustain his American citizenship, Hinman claimed.

And as for why there was no record of this death of the second son, Hinman argued that Arthur's father had sold the body to a medical school. In the end, there seemed to be no proof of this claim that Arthur was born in Canada, and there is a marker in Vermont pointing out where the 21st president was supposedly born. Arthur died Nov. 18, 1886.

Copyright © Randy Ray and Mark Kearney, The Trivia Guys.
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