When we think of the President of the United
States, many people do not realize that we are
actually referring to presidents elected under the
U.S. Constitution. Everybody knows that the first
president in that sense was George Washington.
But in fact the Articles of Confederation, the
predecessor to the Constitution, also called for a
president- albeit one with greatly diminished
powers. Eight men were appointed to serve oneyear
terms as president under the Articles of
Confederation. In November 1781, John
Hanson became the first President of the
United States in Congress Assembled, under the
Articles of Confederation.
Many people have argued that John Hanson, and not George Washington, was the
first President of the United States, but this is not quite true. Under the Articles of
Confederation, the United States had no executive branch. The President of Congress
was a ceremonial position within the Confederation Congress. Although the office
required Hanson to deal with correspondence and sign official documents, it wasn't the
sort of work that any President of the United States under the Constitution would have
Hanson didn't really enjoy his job either, and found the work tedious and wished to
resign. Unfortunately, the Articles of Confederation hadn't accounted for how
succession worked and his departure would have left Congress without a President. So,
because he loved his country, and out of a sense of duty, he remained in office.
Statue of John Hanson in the United States Capitol Building
While there, he served from November 5, 1781 until November 3, 1782, he was able to
remove all foreign troops from American lands, as well as their
flags. He also introduced the Treasury Department, the first
Secretary of War, and the first Foreign Affairs Department. He
led the flight to guarantee the statehood of the Western
Territories beyond the Appalachian Mountains that had been
controlled by some of the original thirteen colonies.
What's probably most interesting is that Hanson is also
responsible for establishing Thanksgiving Day as the fourth
Thursday in November.
It was no easy task to be the first person in this position as
President of Congress. So it's incredible that Hanson was able to
accomplish as much as he did. Plus, instead of the four year term
that current Presidents serve, Presidents under the Articles of
Confederation served only one year. So, accomplishing anything
during this short time was a great feat.
Hanson played an important role in the development of United
States Constitutional History, one often not stated, but true nonetheless. Often, Hanson
is regarded as the "forgotten first President." In Seymour Weyss Smith's biography
of him, John Hanson, Our First President, he says that the American Revolution had
two primary leaders: George Washington in the military sphere, and John Hanson in
politics. Although one position was ceremonial, and the other was more official, there
are statues of both men in the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.
Hanson died on November 15, 1783 at the age of 62.
"Thus was ended the career of one of America's greatest statesmen. While hitherto
practically unknown to our people, and this is true as to nearly all the generations that
have lived since his day, his great handiwork, the nation which he helped to establish,
remains as a fitting tribute to his memory. It is doubtful if there has ever lived on this
side of the Atlantic, a nobler character or shrewder statesman. One would search in vain
to find a more powerful personage, or a more aggressive leader, in the annals of
American history. and it is extremely doubtful if there has ever lived in an age since the
advent of civilization, a man with a keener grasp of, or a deeper insight into, such
democratic ideals as are essential to the promotion of personal liberty and the extension
of human happiness. ... He was firm in his opinion that the people of America were capable
of ruling themselves without the aid of a king."
-JACOB A. NELSON, "JOHN HANSON AND THE INSEPARABLE UNION," PUBLISHED IN 1939
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike