When I was in high school, I never heard about the presidents before Washington. My teachers took the cut-and-dry, fast-paced approach to the start of America’s great history. The presidents before Washington were never discussed, let alone explained in-depth to me. I grew up thinking that the steps to establishing America’s government and first president were swift (and of course that I knew them all). It was: 1) the Revolutionary War, 2) the Declaration of Independence, 3) the United States Constitution, and 4) President George Washington elected; boom, boom, boom, boom! I knew about the Articles of the Confederation and the Continental Congress, but I just thought the four steps above happened so quickly that there wasn’t a need for a president, until the “kicking the British to the curb” was over.
Now whether you debate that America became a country in 1776, when it declared its independence; in 1781, when The Articles of Confederation were adopted; or in 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed and Britain acknowledged America as an independent nation, you have to admit that from these time periods to the appointment of George Washington, to President of the United States, there was a long stretch of time. George Washington became president in 1789. So who acted as the executive officer while George Washington was engaged in battle with the Redcoats?
Peyton Randolph, Henry Middleton, Henry Laurens, John Jay, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, John Hanson, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock, Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin. These men, in somewhat chronological order (some served non-consecutive terms), all served as “President” in some form or fashion.
From September 5, 1774 – July 1, 1776, Peyton Randolph, Henry Middleton, and John Hancock served as “President of the Continental Congress” for the United Colonies of America. From July 2, 1776 – Feb 28,1781, John Hancock, Henry Laurens, John Jay, and Samuel Hamilton served as “President of the Continental Congress” for the United States of America.
With The Articles of Confederation adopted on March 1, 1781, this is when a lot of people–including myself–really start to see the formation of America and its government. On March 1, 1781, Samuel Hamilton transitioned into president and continued to serve as “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” until he became ill in July, then was replaced by Thomas McKean on July 19, 1781. On November 5, 1781, John Hanson was elected as the third “President of the United States in Congress Assembled,” but was the first president to serve one full term.
There are those that like to nit-pick history and consider John Hanson to be America’s ‘first president.’ (Maybe nit-pick isn’t the right term. I understanding wanting correct history to be made available to the public, but some people take it overboard.) Over the next several years, under The Articles of Confederation, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock, Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin all served as “President of the United States in Congress Assembled,” until 1789, when the United States Constitution was ratified and George Washington was elected as the first “President of the United States.”
All these names I should have known, or at least heard of while in high school. I remember hearing about three of them, but not because they were presidents.
I know what you are thinking, these were just token positions, figureheads. These former “presidents” had no real powers. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t; however, people thought the position was important.
In 1781, when John Hanson was elected “President of the United States in Congress Assembled,” George Washington wrote to him and said,
I congratulate your Excellency on your appointment to fill the most important seat in the Untied States.
In 1804, when Tomas McKean was approached to run as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, he said,
…President of the United States in Congress Assembled in the year of 1781 (a proud year for Americans) equaled any merit or pretensions of mine and cannot now be increased by the office of Vice President.
So clearly the title of these previous presidents were enough that accepting a Vice President position would be beneath it.
Now, if someone stops you on the street and asks you, “Who was the first President of the United States?” I think that you can safely stick with “George Washington.” However, if they do want to nit-pick and try to tell you that it was John Hanson, you can calmly reply:
Oh, I am so sorry. I thought that you said “President on the United States.” I didn’t hear that you said “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”
Then you can go ahead and show off your knowledge of the presidents before Washington, and even tell said person of the presidents before John Hanson…