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Presidential Birthplace Remains a Question

Questions about President Barack Obama’s birthplace arise from time to time, but never entirely go away. At issue is whether, in fact, he was born in Hawaii as he claims and not someplace else, such as Kenya, his father’s homeland.

This is not an inconsequential matter. The U.S. Constitution imposes few qualifications for being elected president apart from age, but one it does set is that, “No person, except a natural born citizen, shall be eligible to the Office of President.”

Both Senator Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign against Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain’s general election campaign reportedly looked into the question. They found no evidence to suggest otherwise. The Obama campaign took the question seriously enough to post his birth certificate on the Internet. That might have ended the matter, but seems rather to have fueled the controversy.

Skeptics said the document posted was not an actual birth certificate, but a briefer, amended version of the real thing. They point out that the posted document doesn’t contain the name of the hospital or a physician. They also raise questions about the engraving, the placement of signatures and certificate numbers and other technical details.

Several legal challenges have been raised, some dismissed, others still pending.

Meanwhile, the Republican governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, says she’s satisfied that the certificate is genuine. And, two Hawaii newspapers in August 1961 carried birth announcements of the future president.

So, is the controversy over? Not if history is any indication.

On 5 October 1829, a son was born to William and Malvina Arthur, the fifth of their eight children. A half century later, that son, Chester Alan Arthur, would be elected vice president of the United States. A year after that, he would succeed to the presidency on the assassination of James A. Garfield. Those facts are not in question. What has remained in question for more than 100 years is where he was born.

William Arthur was an immigrant from Ireland who migrated to the village of Dunham in the Canadian province of Québec, just a few kilometers north of the border with the U.S. state of Vermont. For a time, he and Malvina owned a small farm in Dunham.

William eventually gave up farming and became a Baptist minister. His first parish was in North Fairfield, Vermont just a few kilometers south of the border. It reportedly was there that Chester was born. “ Reportedly” because rumors have persisted for 130 years that, in fact, he was born in Dunham and only came to Fairfield as a baby.

Vital record keeping in those days usually consisted of an entry in a family Bible. But, in the 1870s, Arthur began giving his date of birth as 1830, apparently to appear a little younger as he began his political career. But, his opponents saw that as proof that his birth date was not tamper-proof and they began to ask whether he had been born before, or after, the family moved those few kilometers from Québec to Vermont. Historians are still asking.

Arthur denied the charges, but never offered any proof beyond the entry in the family Bible. And, for all their doubts, his opponents never produced a Canadian birth certificate or any other evidence to contradict him. But, if in all these years, the controversy over the birthplace of the 21st president has not been resolved, the 44th probably should not expect an early end to the speculation about him, either.