The “Real” First President? Washington, Of Course!

In yesterday’s posting I offered:

SOMETHING TO PONDER: who really deserves to be known as “The First President of The United States of America?”

Is it George Washington, who served as the first president under the present Constitution? That’s what is usually said, and with excellent reason: George Washington was indeed the first chief executive of The United States, for no such position existed under The Articles.

But what about the first holder of the office of President to serve a full term after The Articles were ratified in March of 1781? Or, for that matter, what about the first holder of the office after The Articles were ratified, whether or not he served a full term? How about the man who held the title when The Articles were adopted in 1777? Consider as well the first holder of the title “President” when the United Colonies became the United States? And, while every American school child knows of George Washington, who were these other folks?

I would be most neglectful if I failed to offer up the names in question.

The first holder of the title “The President Of The United States In Congress Assembled,” who served a full term after the ratification of The Articles Of Confederation And Perpetual Union, was Maryland’s John Hanson, whose name sometimes shows up as a trivia contest spoiler in answer to “Who was the first president of the Unites States?”

Hanson is offered as the “first” because he was the first holder of that title to use it in official correspondence with other nations. But note that Hanson and the others above were each president of Congress, and not an executive of any sort, and not at all “president” in the sense we know the office today. The President of Congress was basically a super-committee-chair, who managed the meetings of Congress (and therefore had some power in setting the agenda) but whose position was more akin to the modern Speaker Of The House, though less powerful, actually. As I say, the office had no executive powers. (Look at the title itself: a president *presides*. Before the United States adopted its present tripartite government, no notion of executive function was associated with the title of president. The framers of the present constitution, in fact, struggled with what to call the chief executive of the new government: some favored “Consul,” after the highest office in the Roman Republic [and upon which our presidency was modeled] while others suggested “First Minister.” Finally, the more egaliterian-sounding “President” was selected, suggesting an office of lesser potency than the Constitution gave it [can you say “spin”?] And in a rare linguistic evolution, the word grew in importance to mean most any chief executive [rare because words’ meanings more often decline in importance in common usage.])

But Hanson was the third holder of the title “The President Of The United States In Congress Assembled” to serve after The Articles were ratified. Samuel Huntington of Connecticut served at the time that Maryland ratified The Articles and at last made them the binding constitution of the Land.

South Carolina’s Henry Laurens was President at the time that Congress approved The Articles, 15 November 1777. He later spent time imprisoned in The Tower Of London as a traitor when the ship upon which he was sailing to Europe was captured by the Royal Navy. Though he was acting with diplomatic status, Britain did not recognize it. He was redeemed in an exchange of British and American prisoners after Yorktown. Laurens was traded for General Cornwallis, which shows how highly the British valued him at the time. After he was freed, Laurens served in the peace talks ending the Revolutionary War, though his son – a great friend of Alexander Hamilton – was killed in a skirmish during the relative lull between Yorktown and the final peace.

And last, but not least – and I am sure you know this one – the first person to hold the title of President at the time The United Colonies transformed into The United States, by means of an unprecedented declaration of independence, was none other than John Hancock, whose big, bold signature (“I want fat George to be able to read it without his glasses!”) on The Declaration Of Independence is so familiar that folks to this day use “my John Hancock” as slang for “my signature.”

So there are a few of history’s footnotes. More food for thought.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Always do more than is required of you. — George S. Patton

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