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Slayton: Vermont's 'Birther' President

The drive took me about ten miles west of St. Albans, through the pastoral countryside of Fairfield, surrounded by rolling fields of corn, lush pastureland, red barns and distant mountains.

It also took me back to the somewhat less gorgeous world of 19th Century machine politics because my destination was the historic site devoted to Chester A. Arthur - Vermont’s other President.

Our twenty-first President was almost certainly born in Fairfield. But in that word “almost” there’s a confusing cloud of uncertainty. Arthur was accused more than once of having been born in Canada – which if true would have made him ineligible for the Presidency - and whatever the truth, made him the focus of America’s first “birther” controversy.

And though he was most likely born here, he left with his family as a young child, and never looked back.

He came to prominence in New York through the spoils system of political patronage — by which the winners of any election rewarded their supporters with cushy government jobs. But after President James Garfield was assassinated Arthur became President and dismayed former cronies by helping to establish a federal Civil Service system based on merit, and divorced from political patronage.

The Vermont site devoted to our 21st President is a small yellow cottage in a forested nook deep in rural Fairfield. But the present cottage itself shares some of the uncertainty surrounding Arthur, since it’s a replica built in 1954 based on an old photograph, and he wasn’t born precisely there.

Like other Vermont historic sites, its beauty seems timeless. But history is never only about the past.

I thought it mildly strange to drive through a beautiful rural countryside - only to be plunged into the intricacies of 19th century politics – until I remembered how vulnerable those rolling pastures are, and how tightly they’re bound to the tangled uproar in Washington today — even as they provided me with a much needed break from the turmoil of current politics.

In the end, the only historic site dedicated to the Chester A. Arthur presidency tells us that it’s possible to survive political attacks like a “birther” controversy, to reject corruption and malfeasance, and ultimately to achieve the kind of moral clarity Arthur displayed upon becoming President.

It was a welcome reminder.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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