(Yes, Before George Washington!)
With President’s Day coming up on the third Monday in February, schools around the United States will be teaching young learners the history of America’s leaders. If you’ve ever learned about the founding of the USA, you have heard of George Washington, the man who is given the title of “First President” of the USA. However, the true history is a bit more nuanced.
Should we be teaching the history of the American presidency differently? Keep reading to learn about the presidents that history books have erased.
A Country at War in Need of a Leader
The system of government we know today took a long time to establish. With wars, treaties, and endless conferences, the running of a new democracy was complicated.
US leaders first declared America’s independence in 1776, which was 13 years before a president would ever be elected. During the war, George Washington was a savvy and respected military leader but he was not as involved with the political sides. There were other men who were more involved with the everyday politics needed to run this new nation.
The Revolutionary War officially ended in 1783 and the USA was finally a recognized sovereign nation. The country’s first Presidental Election took place in 1789. George Washington easily won and officially became America’s first generally elected President.
Who was in charge of the day-to-day running of the federal government before Washington’s election? The President of the Confederation.
Since a war against a monarchy was waging, this young country was extremely weary of one person holding a lot of power. This meant that the first presidents of the USA had very limited powers – and they weren’t even paid!
John Hanson, America’s First President?
In November 1781, John Hanson was chosen to be the first “President of the United States in Congress Assembled”, under the Articles of Confederation. Due to this, some think it’s only fair that he hold the title of the first President of the United States, instead of George Washington.
However, this would not respect the current system of elections. Washington was the first president elected under the US Constitution that we use as our system of running the federal government. Before the Constitution, there was no executive branch as we know it today and instead, America’s 13 colonies were governed by the Articles of Confederation.
Hanson did not perform the same duties that presidents do today and he, in fact, did not enjoy the job. It was seen as a hassle and a necessary evil. He spent his days signing laws and letters and overseeing congress.
Although his power was negligible, he did make some lasting changes to the country we know today. He is even responsible for the Thanksgiving holiday falling on the fourth Thursday of November.
How did the President of Congress Work?
These first presidential terms only lasted a year. John Hanson begrudgingly served from 1781 to 1782 after trying to resign right away.
Although they aren’t remembered, the presidents helped solidify the government’s position in daily life. These presidents overlooked the founding of important institutions like the United States Post Office, the National Bank, and the use of a single federal currency throughout the nation.
Elias Boudinot was the next president, who used his position to fight for the rights of Native Americans and African Americans. He established schools and gave marginalized groups platforms to speak.
One president was even a former British soldier! Arthur St. Clair was born in Scotland and fought in the British army during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). After fighting in the colonies, he decided to settle in Pennsylvania.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, St. Clair felt more American than British and accepted a position in the war. He ended up fighting against his home country and pursuing a life of American politics.
Salute to the Presidents
A job that paid nothing, involved signing endless paperwork, and had no real power was understandably not a coveted position. Nevertheless, there were still 8 men who agreed to hold the position:
- John Hanson
- Elias Boudinot
- Thomas Mifflin
- Richard Henry Lee
- John Hancock (yes the very one who first signed the United States Declaration of Independence!)
- Nathaniel Gorham
- Arthur St. Clair
- Cyrus Griffin
Some call Hanson our “forgotten president” but anyone visiting the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. will see him immortalized in bronze, close to Washington himself.
Before the Articles of Confederation were written and the US government first started to take form, Peyton Randolph, Henry Middleton, Henry Laurens, John Jay, Samuel Huntington, and Thomas McKean served as various “presidents” for the United Colonies of America. Since this was before any sort of government was solidified, most consider John Hanson as closer to a “first president” than them.
When we shorten history to better fit our current system, we forget important figures in history.
These men worked a largely thankless job but aided the USA to become the democracy it is today. By learning about how the systems changed in the past, we can look at our present and future and ask what we might change today.
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