The First American Presidents

No, not THOSE first US Presidents …

John_Hanson_Portrait_1770
John Hanson photo from WikiCommons

Most people know George Washington as the first US President. But, technically, there were over a dozen American “presidents” before Washington assumed office in 1789.

Unofficially, the “United Colonies” had been governed by the Continental Congress ever since independence was declared in 1776, and a number of people served as “President of the Continental Congress”, although this was largely an administrative position and had no real political power. These “Presidents” had no fixed term of office, and served until they resigned or were replaced by a vote of the Congress. This government was of course not legally acknowledged by London, though it was supported by both France and Spain, who joined with the colonies in their war against England.

But in 1781, the British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, ending all the fighting in the Revolutionary War and virtually guaranteeing the eventual independence of the colonies (though fighting continued in Europe for a further two years). The Continental Congress had already ratified the Articles of Confederation, which was intended to specify the way in which the soon-to-be-independent “United States” was to be governed, and this went into effect in March 1781. Although it favored the power of the several State governments over a small and weak central government, the Confederation did have an office of “President of the Congress of the United States”, who moderated discussions during Congressional sessions, acted as the delegate that carried out the instructions given to him by Congress, and served as their spokesman in official ceremonies–more of an employee of the legislature (though he received no salary) rather than a chief executive. Most politicians preferred to serve in state governments where the real power lay, instead of in the relatively powerless Confederation Congress. Some refused to even take their place in the legislature after being elected.

When the Articles went into effect, however, there was no election for a new Congress or President: instead, the existing Continental Congress and its President, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut (who was a Judge in the colony’s Superior Court) continued in office. Huntington’s presence, however, caused a controversy: the Articles specified that the President’s term of office was limited to one year in every three, but Huntington had already been serving as President of the pre-Articles Continental Congress for two years, and critics now argued that his previous service disqualified him from continuing in that office under the Articles of Confederation. Huntington ended the debate by resigning in July 1781, after only five months of his new term.

Congress then elected delegate Samuel Johnson to the position of President–but he declined and refused to serve. The next day, a new Congressional vote placed Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, into office. He served for just four months, though, as his position also caused some controversy–in addition to serving as President of the Congress, McKean was already a judge on the highest court in Pennsylvania, and some critics questioned this “centralization of power”. The colonies, who were already fighting to overthrow the authority of a monarchy, were extraordinarily wary of allowing too much political influence to be concentrated in one man.

In November 1781, Congress assembled to elect a new President, the first one to serve a full term under the authority of the Articles of Confederation. They picked John Hanson, a representative from Maryland: he tried to resign just a week later, but was persuaded to stay. In his ceremonial role as President, Hanson signed all of the government’s treaties, laws, official papers, and correspondences–but he could not propose legislation, negotiate treaties on his own, or appoint committee members. Some historians consider him to be the “first actual President of the United States”, but in reality his role was mostly clerical and he had no political influence, and bore little similarity to today’s office of the President. At the end of his one-year term Hanson was succeeded by Elias Boudinot, a delegate from Pennsylvania.

The United States at last won full and recognized independence in 1783 under the terms of the Treaty of Paris which formally ended the Revolutionary War, and the Confederation Congress officially assumed legal governmental authority.

President Boudinot was in office when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1782, but by the time it was ratified he had been replaced by Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, who had served as Quartermaster of the Continental Army and would later become Governor of Pennsylvania. Mifflin was then succeeded in office by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, who had introduced the original resolution to the Continental Congress declaring colonial independence back in 1776. In 1785, when Lee’s term ended, the venerable John Hancock, signer of the Declaration of Independence who had previously served as President of the Continental Congress, was elected as President of the Confederation Congress, but failing health caused him to be unable to travel to Philadelphia to perform his actual duties, which were instead carried out by two delegates named David Ramsay and Nathaniel Gorham. When Hancock resigned a few months later, he was replaced in office by Gorham, who had already been carrying out the President’s duties.

In 1787, Revolutionary War general Arthur St Clair, who had fought at Trenton, Princeton and Fort Ticonderoga, was elected President of Congress. The General had been elected largely for his military experience, as Shays Rebellion was then raging in Massachusetts. St Clair, however, found himself unable to act and was forced to depend on asking state militia troops to put down the insurrection. He then became a leading advocate for a convention in Philadelphia to reform the Articles and to strengthen the power of the Federal government.

St Clair was succeeded by Virginia Judge Cyrus Griffin. During this period the new United States Constitution was written, ratified, and came into effect, under the authority of which a new (and greatly strengthened) office of “President of the United States” was established as a separate branch of the United States Government. By this time, the Confederation Congress, always powerless and now the ultimate lame duck government, had shrunk to such an extent that it often had no quorum to conduct business. Griffin, the last President under the old Articles of Confederation, resigned on January 22, 1788, when just two legislators showed up for a Congressional session. He was not replaced.

On April 30, 1789, President George Washington assumed office as the first Chief Executive under the new Constitution. He was the fifteenth person to carry the title of “President”.

One thought on “The First American Presidents”

  1. The whole “states rights” thingie was tried twice in North America–by the Articles of Confederation, and by the Confederate States of America.

    Both were massive failures.

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