Remembering the Unremembered, Part One: The Trouble With Arthur

or, “What Would Donald Trump Say?”

This is it. Fairfield, Vermont—a tiny Vermont farm town by the Canadian border, where cows seem to outnumber people four times over and Chester A. Arthur may have been born on October 5, 1829, or sometime in 1830, or perhaps not here at all. If you’re not yet confused, you’re not paying attention.

Drive about 35 miles north from Burlington, past Winooski; take Route 89 at the St. Albans exit and follow signs to the Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site. Eventually emerges the center of Fairfield: a general store, a “Chester’s Bakery,” a modest town hall with a “President Chester A. Arthur Meeting Room.”

And, across the street from this bustling metropolis, a small state historic marker beside an abandoned-seeming farmhouse:

And continue, five miles northwest, into the Vermont dairy abyss, past sloping farms and scowling Holstein cows. Journey further and further, into the Green Mountain tundra, and there you’ll find a small yellow cottage tucked into the thick New England woods. Beside it, a century-old rectangular stone monument, and out in front, what looks like a $20 realtor sign proclaiming the historic site of Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States.

You’ve reached your destination.

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But is it even the birthplace? Hard to say. Vermont birth records were scarce before the 1850s, and Arthur’s birth remains a subject of debate.
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“Research indicates Chester Alan Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont on October 5, 1829,” declares a marker out front by the cottage. Historians generally tend to agree on the date. Three family bibles, and the U.S. 1850 census, point to 1829. But Arthur himself listed 1830 as the date later in life, perhaps intending to make himself a year younger, and his gravestone concurs.
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More debate centers on the place. By most accounts, the Arthurs lived in Fairfield—at this cottage—at the time of Chester’s birth. So says what sparse records exist: the Chester family bibles, the 1830 U.S. census, the Vermont Register and Farmer’s Almanac of that year. Certainly he lived here as an infant. But the family left Vermont within five years, and little is known of Arthur’s early life. (Or of Arthur at all, for that matter. Few biographies exist, and the president, who died a year after leaving office, reportedly “ordered the great bulk of his private papers burned the day before his death, and sent his son to oversee their destruction.”)
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In 1880, Arthur, a prominent New York lawyer and party leader known to eschew publicity and press, received the Republican Vice Presidential nomination under Ohio congressman James A. Garfield. The pick “had little or nothing to do with whatever strengths of mind or character Arthur may have possessed,” writes Thomas C. Reeves of the Vermont Historical Society. It was simply a strategic move, designed to appease the Stalwart wing of the party—and Roscoe Conkling, a corrupt Machine Republican and close friend and mentor to Arthur.
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Arthur was never supposed to become president. Whoops.
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.By the summer of 1880, Democrats began spreading salacious rumors that Arthur had been born outside the U.S.—and was therefore ineligible to serve as vice president. First they claimed Ireland—clearly a slanderous fiction, not worth investigating. But then they sent Arthur P. Hinman, a New York lawyer, to Vermont and Canada, where he concluded that the president had secretly been born on a visit to his mother’s parents in Dunham, Quebec. Arthur’s birth records in fact belonged to a deceased infant brother Hinman argued. These findings became the basis of an 1884 book, How A British Subject Became President of the United States.
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And all this over a century before so-called “birthers” began making noise about a supposed Obama Kenyan birth conspiracy, before Donald Trump made headlines with his own goofy demands to see Obama’s birth certificate.
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Arthur didn’t secure the 1884 Republican nomination. He wouldn’t have survived a second term anyway, and the Canadian-born rumors had largely vanished from public interest by his 1886 death of Bright’s disease.
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Until 1940, when one Burlington woman claimed that according to her great aunt’s stories, Arthur was actually born in Waterville, VT. Following this woman’s claim, a Bennington man revived Hinman’s book and asserted, “It is fairly well-known by students that in 1880, when Arthur was nominated for the vice-presidency, his friends works desperately to hush up the charge that he was born across the line, in Canada.” Nowhere does any reference to the Arthur family appear in any Fairfield town records. I repeat: if you’re not yet confused, you’re not paying attention.

There isn’t a whole lot going on at the one-room Chester A. Arthur State Historic site, shockingly enough. No shiny visitor center or presidential library, no Arthur artifacts, no tour guides. Just a single room, a few museum panels devoted to Arthur’s life and presidency. A dusty guestbook, even. These entries don’t describe sensations of heavenly peace and boundless melancholy. Mostly they’re terse, pleasant, complimentary (“cool,” “very interesting”). The most interesting entry is that of Arthur Rudnick, who lists his location as Elizabeth East, South Australia. “Originally from Boston,” Rudnick writes. “Came a long way to see a president who had a name like mine.” Mine was the first entry of 2011.

The stone monument was placed at the site in 1903, at a dedication ceremony reportedly attended by guest speaker Robert Todd Lincoln. The cottage was reconstructed 50 years later, thanks to a private donation. Today the site is staffed by a single caretaker, a Shirley Paradee, who lives a mile or so down the road and has held the fort since 2000. (Here she is, good-naturedly agreeing to pose in front of the cottage.) Some days Shirley sees up to six, seven, even ten visitors. “It’s really fun, meeting people from other states,” she tells me, some of whom “say they saw a sign and didn’t even know he was president.”

Other days, no one comes.

Is it lonely, I ask, working at such a remote site, way out here in the middle of—ahem—nowhere?

“Oh, not really.” She laughs. “I read a lot. Some days I knit.”

The conversation topic changes to Chester A. Arthur. “Although a lot of people think he didn’t do much when he was president, he really did,” Shirley insists. His best accomplishment, she seems to think (and most historians agree), was the passage in 1883 of the Pendleton Civil Service Act. “He tried to do the best he could for the time,” and that’s that.

But Arthur’s three-year administration pleased neither his corrupt machine-boss friends nor the reformers of the Republican party. He was haunted by claims that he plotted the Garfield assassination, perhaps in collaboration with Conklin. And by 1882, the presidency was characterized by frequent vacations and constant inactivity—perceived as a general disinterest in the demands and ambitions of the United States presidency.

Neither journalists nor political opponents knew Arthur was suffering from Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney inflammation that made him emaciated, exhausted, and frequently ill. Occasionally, Arthur had doctors issue false statements to hide his deteriorating health. His condition a secret, Arthur expressed little interest in seeking reelection in 1884, and the Republican nomination went to James G. Blaine. The 21st president confided to a friend that he had only a few months to live.

Blaine lost the election to Grover Cleveland. Arthur returned to his home in New York City and quietly died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1886.

I did not ultimately manage to solve the mystery of Arthur’s birth. If the cows know, they’re not telling, and if Arthur knew—well, somehow I doubt Arthur knew a whole lot more about his life in Fairfield than we do now.

But the Fairfieldians I met (at least those without visible udders) seem more than glad to regard Arthur as their own, if for no other reason than why not?

“Yes, I do [think he was born in Fairfield],” Shirley responds proudly when I bring up the controversy. I ask why. She laughs.  “Because I’m a Fairfieldian.”

And then there are the folks at Chester’s Bakery in the center of town (read: across from the General Store and next to the Chester A. Arthur Meeting Room). “I’ve heard several rumors,” admits Ron, an older employee who boasts that he attended the Chester A. Arthur schoolhouse (a one-room schoolhouse for grades 1-8) before it burned down. “Some say he wasn’t born here, some he was. I can’t help but believe that he was ’cause they got the monument up the road.”

I ask if many people come through looking for the site.

“Yeah, there’s a lotta people. A lotta people.” How many? “During foliage season, stuff like that, there’s several people coming through.”

His coworker, a slightly younger woman with a voice like nails, can’t stop herself from interjecting.

“Yes, he was born here!” she declares, certainty like a rock. “Want to know why?” Yes, I do. I do more than I’ve ever wanted anything in the world. “Because every year we bake a cake for his birthday! Every year. Everybody gets a piece of cake.”

Somehow, that seems as good a reason as any. I consider the case closed and make my way back towards Burlington.

FURTHER READINGS:

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One Comment on “Remembering the Unremembered, Part One: The Trouble With Arthur”

  1. damian says:

    We acquired a grant to take oral histories from the elderly in Waterville, Vermont. It was striking to us that it seemed like like common knowledge to all that Chester A. Arthur was born in Waterville and the historical storyline was compelling. Dad was the minister in Waterville and was building a house in Fairfield whilst mom stayed in Waterville until the house was complete. While waiting mom had Chester…in Waterville.


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