By now you are surely aware that President Obama released his birth certificate this week, proving once and for all that he was born in Hawaii. It remains to be seen if this finally will quash one of the more bizarre faux scandals to sully our contemporary politics. Being a history nerd, this unfortunate news story reminded me of similar false claims that Chester A. Arthur, who ascended to the presidency in 1881 on the assassination of James A. Garfield, was not a natural-born citizen of the United States.
Arthur was born in 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont, a town in the extreme northwest corner of the state, near the Canadian border. Like President Obama, Arthur's mother was a U.S. citizen, while his father was not. In Arthur's case, his father was a subject of the British Empire who had been born in Ireland and settled as an adult in Canada and subsequently Vermont. In 1880, Arthur was Garfield's running mate on the Republican presidential ticket and campaigned actively on their behalf. The Democratic Party hired New York attorney Arthur Hinman to investigate (or create) rumors that Arthur had not been born in the United States. Like the birthers who cannot decide among themselves whether President Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia, Hinman produced two vastly different origin stories for the vice-presidential candidate. Initially, he claimed that Arthur had been born and raised in Ireland until he was 14 years old. This was an unsustainable claim, in that there was a mountain of evidence, including living witnesses, testifying to the fact that Arthur had grown up in Vermont and New York State during his family's peripatetic existence. Hinman had floated this story, however, because it was the easiest and clearest way to claim that Arthur was not a U.S. citizen and therefore ineligible to run for the vice-presidency.
Eventually, as the 1880 presidential campaign was drawing to a close, Hinman simply changed tack and claimed that Arthur had been born in the province of Quebec, while his mother was visiting relatives there (Arthur's mother had no known relatives in Quebec). This rumor was less useful for Democratic purposes, for even if Arthur had been born in Canada while his mother merely was sojourning there, that would not necessarily have disqualified him from executive office. He still would have had a strong legal claim to American citizenship as the child of an American citizen legally residing in the U.S. Similarly, those fanatics who entertained the notion that the President was born in Indonesia did not seem to consider that he still would have been able to claim American citizenship through his mother.
The similarities between these two invented scandals largely end there, however. Whereas, the birther movement has remained a staple of the news, even if it usually was relegated to the fringe, Hinman's charges against Arthur gained little, if any, traction. Why is that? As I argued in a previous blog post, it's not because our media is less serious or more sensationalistic than the nineteenth century press. If anything, the opposite would be true.
There was one notable difference, however. In 1880, the newspaper industry was still essentially dominated by partisanship. That meant that Arthur had the benefit of a Republican press that quickly and vociferously denounced, debunked, and discredited Hinman's untenable allegations. Even Democratic newspapers proved reluctant to push the rumors of Arthur's alleged foreign birth in the face of unreserved, forthright reproofs from the Republicans. In contrast, our contemporary media, zealously protecting its self-made myth of news objectivity, initially did not take such a clear stance on the wild claims of the birthers. Even when expressing mild disapproval or disbelief, its insistence on covering the persistent questions from the fringe about Obama's birth, gave this faux controversy continued, undeserved life. Rational, investigative efforts to expose the fallacy of birther claims, such as this video produced by CNN, came far too late in the process. Major media outlets seemed to treat the issue largely with bemusement and perhaps did not want to dignify it with serious engagement. Their efforts to report "objectively" on the birther movement, however, merely legitimized an utterly illegitimate campaign.
Of course, there is another glaring aspect to the birther movement that, at first blush, makes it quite distinct from the Arthur affair, and that is the issues of "race" and racism. Several academics, writers, and commentators, such as the New Yorker's David Remnick, have raised probing and troubling questions about the role "race" has played in the controversy over President Obama's birth. Were the president not biracial, were his name not Barack Obama, they wonder, would these cranks insist that he is foreign? Remnick concludes that anxious birtherism is a symptom of stubborn racist attitudes that refuse to accept people of color as truly equal and fully American. As he puts it, various fantastic conspiracy theories about the President are still alive and pulsating, hysterically asserting "that Obama is foreign, a fake, incapable of writing a book, incapable of intellectual achievement." In short, he is irretrievably the "other," and the "other" is incapable of the honest striving and genuine achievement that supposedly characterize "true" Americans.
One might assume that this was not a problem that Chester A. Arthur faced, yet that is not quite the case. Certainly, he did not have to confront the ugly, deep-rooted and ossified racism that we continue to face in contemporary society. He did have to overcome a still-powerful strain of ethnic discrimination in his own right, however. Though bigotry toward Irish-Americans perhaps was not as ferocious in 1880 as it had been half a century before, it still was a prevalent part of mainstream American culture. Near the end of the 1884 presidential campaign, while Arthur sat in the White House, one of his fellow Republicans, Dr. Samuel Burchard, notoriously declared that Democrats were the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." In this ugly, alliterative comment, Burchard indicted Democrats for causing the late rebellion and Civil War and also charged them with having given over their party to dissolute, superstitious Irish-American Catholics. Four years prior, when Hinman floated his preposterous story of Arthur's alleged upbringing in Ireland, he consciously hoped to appeal to this same prevalent prejudice that Irish-Americans were drunkards, brutes, and untrustworthy and undeserving citizens who blindly and thoughtlessly followed the dictates of the Bishop of Rome.
In Arthur's case, this prejudice proved unavailing. For one thing, his father, though Irish, was first a Presbyterian and then a Baptist preacher. For another, he again had the benefit of a partisan media that savaged the Hinman stories, and resolutely and repeatedly trumpeted not only Arthur's American-ness, but also his qualifications for office through his long service to party, state, and country, not Rome. What the recent birther controversy shows is how ill-equipped the major media outlets still appear to be to conduct the kind of incisive and unapologetic advocacy journalism that such absurd "stories" require. This is the kind of service partisan journals once performed (obviously, only when it was in their interests). We no longer have such a widespread partisan press, of course, but for all of the claims of liberal or conservative bias in the media (as though media bias is somehow a new phenomenon), our major media outlets still hesitate to take strong positions on controversial issues, even when all available logic both justifies and demands it.