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 one year 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 done.
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.
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
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