August 7th, 2009


Cullybackey and the Constitution of the United States of America

Following through some of the historical footnotes to the Birther madness, I discovered to my astonishment that the Northern Irish village of Cullybackey enjoys a peculiar prominence in debates on presidential eligibility.

For those who for some reason may not have heard of it, Cullybackey is a small village in County Antrim, 30 miles (50 km) from Belfast, close to the larger town of Ballymena. It is regarded as, for good or ill, the heartland of rural Ulster Unionist culture, possibly because its population is roughly 97% Protestant to 1% Catholic. Not exactly isolated - nowhere in Northern Ireland is, these days - it is nonetheless not really at the throbbing heart of modernity, or a place that one automatically thinks of as associated with political culture.

So why is it important in American constitutional theory? The local tourism website has the crucial clue: "Arthur Cottage, one of Cullybackey’s most popular tourist attractions, lies just outside the town and is the ancestral home of Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st President of the United States." We will pass ruthlessly over any speculation about Cullybackey's other popular tourist attractions, and cut to the chase. The Rev William Arthur was born in Cullybackey in 1796. He emigrated to Canada in 1818 or 1819, married a couple of years later, and his fifth child, the future President, was born in 1829.

It seems that the Rev William Arthur did not become a naturalised citizen until 1843, which according to a couple of the Birther sites (here and here) means that his son was not a "natural born citizen" of the United States. I confess I do not see the logic of this argument; nobody contests Arthur's mother's US citizenship, and it seems a perverse reading of things that aren't in the constitution to say that his potential dual nationality due to his father's British citizenship should block his claim to lifelong American identity.

It seems that Arthur's eligibility was in fact raised during the 1880 election campaign when he ran and won the Vice-Presidency (and then succeeded as President a few months later when Garfield was assassinated). But the Birthers of the 1880s looked in the wrong place: Arthur Hinman, author of a pamphlet called "How a British Subject Became President", alleged that Chester Arthur had been born in Canada or Ireland, and therefore could not be considered a "natural born citizen". As with rumours of Obama's birth elsewhere than Honolulu, it was not difficult to prove that Arthur had been born in Vermont. The question of his father's citizenship issue remained unexplored. (Arthur, an ill man already, died a few months after his unexpected Presidential term ended in 1885. Most of his personal papers were destroyed.)

I doubt very much that I will bother to explore Cullybackey and its popular tourist attractions, but it gladdens my heart to know that a corner of my own homeland is providing yet more confusion to the Birther debates.

August Books 10) On The Road, by Jack Kerouac

A book with hidden shallows, I felt. The narrator, Sal, tells us of his affection for and inspiration by his friend Dean Moriarty, and expects us to admire Dean's exploitation of friends, relatives and women to maintain his transient, commitment-free lifestyle. I couldn't bring myself to do so. The book's defenders make claims that it tracks a mystical, religious journey; the journey I will agree to, but I saw no encouraging signs of spiritual growth. Each new destination seems much the same as the others: different boozing partners, different girls, but no big difference. The style is indeed entertaining and engaging, but I felt at the end that this short book was probably three times too long.
body paint

August Books 11) Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Choderlos de Laclos

I enjoyed this much more than On The Road. Even if I hadn't seen two of the cinema versions (the ones with Glenn Close and Sarah Michelle Gellar), I think I would have found this a compelling tale. At first it seems to be a straightforward tale of manipulation and hypocrisy, with Merteuil and Valmont exercising respectively feminine and masculine wiles over their various prey. But the twists start to appear in the last quarter of the book, when Valmont's very successes trigger a change of his own attitude, and Merteuil fails to catch onto what is happening in time to prevent his death and save her own reputation. Everyone comes out damaged or dead, with the exception of the odious Prévan who has played the game and won (but even so, his victory may be short lived). Yeah, I admit it is totally heteronormative and moralistic, but it is still a great read.