Visiting Fairfield, Vermont, the Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site: Where the 21st President Was Probably Born?
Fiction is far less weighty than truth (but is sometimes far more intriguing)
The large, stone monument, indicating it was 'Erected by the State of Vermont', seems to leave the visitor in no doubt:
'On this spot stood the cottage where was born Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States'.
Nearby, a slightly more cerebrally worded historical plaque gently shifts emphasis very slightly: 'Research indicates Chester Alan Arthur was born in Fairfield. Vermont, on October 5, 1829'.
Here, then, is an oblique acknowledgment of a controversy which dogged President Chester Arthur during his lifetime. A US Presidential candidate (and, thus, Vice Presidential candidate, also, who must be ready at any time to assume the Presidency) needs to be 'a natural born citizen', according to the US Constitution. But rumours surfaced that he was supposedly not born in the United States and was therefore ineligible.
Yet the fact that the criticism about his true birthplace came from political opponents rather than from more impartial historians, puts such criticism into perspective.
It is known, however, that his father, William Arthur, was an Irish-born Baptist minister, who had lived in nearby Canada before coming to live in the United States; thus, too, it was suggested (without proper evidence) that Chester Arthur was born variously in Ireland, or in Quebec, Canada. In any case, having visited the isolated spot, several miles away from the small town of Fairfield, Vermont, where the Arthur family are known to have lived a year after the date generally given for Chester Arthur's birth, I can well understand how before the days of motorized transport some of the difficulties of registering births in a timely way in a mountain state could potentially give rise to inaccuracies and ambiguities.
The house at the Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site, dates from 1954, a replica of the one in which the 21st President is believed to have been born. A wooden structure, it operates as a museum during the summer months.
Much later, a book was even written — amounting to a spoof — saying that Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth was not hanged in 1865, but rather, someone who looked like him who also bore his initials was hanged instead. Supposedly, also, acting was not confined to the stage at Ford's Theater, but instead, John Wilkes Booth supposedly went on to impersonate Chester A. Arthur years later as President. (Conspiracy theories hardly began with the JFK assassination ... !) In turn, the novel, William Wiegand's The Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy , Doubleday, 1983, and similar works, have given rise to historian James M. McPherson discussing what may precisely be the post-structuralist line between a writer recreating the past in historical fiction, and historians constructing or reconstructing the past (1). And so it goes.
In any case, the fact remains that it is hard to point with certainty to the exact place where the 21st President was actually born. (A historical plaque in Fairfield itself, five miles — 8 kilometres away says as much.) What is known is that William Arthur, and his wife Malvina Stone Arthur, moved frequently. Matters are not assisted for those seeking to debunk rumours about Chester Arthur's birthplace by the fact that in later years Arthur, for reasons that remain obscure, would consistently understate his age by one year. Only in the 1940s did it emerge, from a close reading of inscriptions in the Arthur family Bible, that he was in fact born in 1829 rather than 1830, as he claimed (2).
Having said all this, there is still no evidence that Chester A. Arthur was anything other than what he has come down in history as: the Vermont-born, rightful 21st President of the United States.
Indeed, President Chester Arthur is widely regarded as one of the more successful of US Presidents, although the fact that he was not renominated for re-election means that his legacy was likely to be less substantial than that of some two-term Presidents.
A New York lawyer who was chosen as James Garfield's Republican Vice Presidential running mate in the 1880 Presidential elections, Chester Arthur succeeded James Garfield as President following the latter's assassination in 1881. As President, he started competitive examinations for civil service posts, thus seeking to diminish the influence of patronage. He improved relations with Latin America. He improved the US Navy, which had been allowed to decline after the Civil War, and he was very supportive of the principle of Federal funding for education. Some significant, cultural events coincided with his Presidency: the Washington Monument was inaugurated in 1885; the White House was refurbished by Louis Tiffany in such a thoroughgoing way that Chester Arthur's promotion of the process has been compared to similar efforts 80 years later by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
So why was Chester A. Arthur not renominated by his party for re-election? was his performance in office really regarded as not 'good enough'? In fact, the opposite is probably truer. He was so effective in a number of areas that he was probably 'too good' receive the support of powerful, vested interests. His failure to achieve re-election, however, is a somewhat moot question, because, less than two years after his successor Grover Cleveland took office, Chester A. Arthur died in 1886 after a long illness. His wife, Ellen Lewis Herdon Arthur (1837-1880)(3) had predeceased him; indeed, Chester Arthur was already a widower when he came to the offices of both Vice President and President. The President's sister Mary Arthur McIlroy, though not officially designated First Lady, acted as White House hostess during her brother's term of Presidential office.
His was a life of highs and lows: times when he was held in high esteem (though exactly by whom is a very significant point) and times when his reputation hit lows from which he might seem never to be able to recover. One such event occurred in 1878, when President Rutherford B. Hayes fired him from the influential 'patronage' post of New York Custom House, because of his perceived closeness to a Republican rival, US Senator Roscoe Conkling. But even then, things were not all they seemed. Among Republicans, Chester Arthur's perceived relation to Conkling undoubtedly smoothed his nomination as Vice Presidential running mate to the ill-fated James Garfield. Indeed, 'smoothed' is an operative word. Chester Arthur was a quintessential, 'smooth' operator (and even at times flamboyant dresser); the extent to which he himself would have been aware of the personally beneficial potentials of his various stances may be said, at best, to remain elusive. (In any case, on his deathbed, a twinge of conscience apparently impelled Chester Arthur to advise his son, Chester, Jr., not to become a politician.)
All a long way from the simple mountain cottage in Vermont where, charitably, he may be deemed to have first seen the light of day.
May 4, 2012
(1) James McPherson, Fact or Fiction? http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/Issues/2004/0401/0401pre2.cfm
(2) David C. Whitney, The American Presidents, Doubleday, 2005 p. 297
(3) Intriguingly, during the Civil War, when Chester Arthur achieved a Union rank of Brigadier-General and served as a militia quartermaster-general, his wife Ellen Lewis Herdon Arthur harboured Confederate sympathies. Thus, William Wiegand's book (see above) which is undoubtedly fiction, did play to some extent upon obscure, Civil War-related ambiguities within Chester Arthur's household.
Also worth seeing
St Albans , Vermont (distance from Fairfield: 12.9 kilometres), situated on scenic Lake Champlain, it is the location for Vermont's annual Maple Festival.
Montreal , Quebec, Canada (distance: 125.6 kilometres) has numerous visitor attractions, including fine, ecclesiastical architecture, Mount Royal and the former Olympic Stadium.
How to get there:
Plattsburgh International Airport (distance to Fairfield : 108 kilometres), where car rental is available, is served by a variety of airlines, including US Air, which flies to Boston, with many North American connections. I-87 and I-89 extend to the US- Canada border on the New York and Vermont sides of Lake Champlain respectively. The I-89 has an exit at nearby St. Albans, Vt. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.