Perhaps you’ve seen this mythbuster:
“WHO WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA? I suspect George Washington was your best guess. After all, who else comes to mind? But think back to your history books – The United States declared its independence in 1776, yet George Washington did not take office until April 30, 1789. So who was running the country during these initial years of our young country? In fact, the first President of the United States was one John Hanson! I can hear you now – John who? John Hanson, the first President of The United States.”
Then comes the explanation:
“Once the signing [ratification of the Articles of Confederation] took place in 1781, a President was needed to run the Country. John Hanson was chosen unanimously by Congress (which included George Washington) … As the first President, Hanson had quite the shoes to fill. No one had ever been President and the role was poorly defined.”
It’s a popular tale. A google search for “John Hanson” + “first president” yields over 46,000 matches, most (although not all) asserting that Washington was not the first after all. We see here mythbusting for the sheer fun of it, but this mythbuster needs to be busted. It is not merely trivial and misleading — it distorts the very nature of our nation’s early government.
Consider these two phrases: Hanson’s “role was poorly defined” and he “was needed to run the country.”
To call the role of the presidency under the Articles of Confederation poorly defined is an understatement. That document consists of 3,442 words, yet “president” was used but once: “The United States in Congress assembled shall have authority … to appoint one of their members to preside, provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years.” This appeared in Article IX, which listed congressional powers: “determining on peace and war,” settling disputes between states, “regulating the alloy and value of coin,” borrowing money and emitting bills, raising money “for the service of the United States,” building and equipping a navy, raising an army, requisitioning each state to supply its share of soldiers, and several others. These powers were not placed under presidential jurisdiction. The only power the Articles of Confederation specifically granted to the president of Congress was that which was inherent in the name: to preside over its proceedings. By custom, borrowed from the years when Congress was subject to no formal agreement, the president also wound up signing acts and letters on behalf of Congress, always under direction of that body.
Claiming that Hanson was expected to run the country is an overstatement. As president, Hanson allegedly “ordered all foreign troops off American soil … established the Great Seal of the United States, which all Presidents have since been required to use on all official documents … established the first Treasury Department, the first Secretary of War, and the first Foreign Affairs Department … [and] declared that the fourth Thursday of every November was to be Thanksgiving Day, which is still true today.” Congress did these things, not John Hanson. Congress’s presiding officer, under the Articles of Confederation, lacked the authority to take any of these actions on his own initiative. He was, truly, a servant of the delegates who elected him and no more.
Supposedly, during Hanson’s tenure in office, soldiers demanding to be paid “threatened to overthrow the new government and put Washington on the throne as a monarch. All the members of Congress ran for their lives, leaving Hanson as the only guy left running the government. He somehow managed to calm the troops down and hold the country together.” This is a curious conflation of events. Soldiers demanding money marched toward Congress early in 1781, but Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania, negotiated a settlement. In June 1783 disgruntled troops actually arrived at Congress’s doorstep, but delegates departed Philadelphia rather than cede to their demands. Hanson was not president during either of these events.
In fact, there was one man who “managed to hold the country together” at a time when the infant nation was about to implode. In 1780 the value of currency issued by Congress, backed by nothing in particular, spiraled downward. By the close of the year a Continental dollar could not even buy a penny’s worth of goods. Few sensible investors were willing to loan money or advance goods to Congress, a body that had no viable way to raise funds other than begging from its constituent states.
Lacking both money and credit, Congress had to act decisively. On February 7, 1781, (again, not during Hanson’s tenure) delegates resolved to create three “civil executive departments.” The first office listed was “Financier,” followed by “Secretary at War” and “Secretary of Marine.” The priority was clear. Without a workable financial system, nothing else was possible.
Less than two weeks later, Congress unanimously elected Robert Morris, a wealthy merchant who had transacted much of Congress’s business during the winter of 1776-1777, to serve as Financier. When Morris expressed reticence, Congress enticed him with the offer of extraordinary powers. He could make all his own appointments, with no input from Congress. Everybody in the government who handled money in any capacity would serve only at his pleasure. He could borrow money from foreign governments and import or export goods, all on the nation’s tab. He could deal with foreign ministers, thereby running his own department of foreign affairs. Without Congressional oversight, he could issue private contracts to supply the army. Soon, he assumed control of the Marine Department as well. Morris accepted these powers and used them — and he produced results. He stimulated the flow of money through a national bank, and he restored confidence in governmental notes by backing them with his own personal credit, the so-called “Morris notes” that people trusted.
If Morris’s powers sound to us dangerously close to one-man rule, that is how many at the time viewed them too. Late in 1781, Joseph Reed commented wryly to Nathanael Greene: “The business of that august body [Congress] has been extremely simplified, Mr. Morris having relieved them from all business of deliberation or executive difficulty with which money is in any respect connected, and they are now very much at leisure to read dispatches, return thanks, pay and receive compliments, &c. For form’s sake some things go thither to receive a sanction, but it is the general opinion that it is form only.” Morris, not Hanson or Washington, was the nation’s first true executive officer, exercising authority granted not by the Articles of Confederation but by a helpless Congress. He wasn’t the president — he was The Financier, a singular office in United States history.
The fundamental flaw in the Hanson-was-first-president story is reading history backwards, assuming that “president” meant at the time what it does now. In 1787, when the framers created an executive office under the leadership of a single man, they ran a great political risk: might the public regard this as a retreat toward monarchy and reject their proposed constitution? The first draft of the Committee of Detail report, which would be worked and reworked into the Constitution, called the chief executive “governor,” but that connoted a man who ruled and called forth images of royal governors lording over colonial subjects. Since granting powers to one man would be a hard sell in any case, they opted to soften the blow by switching to “president,” one who merely presides. The Revolutionary generation was more comfortable with that notion; their many deliberative bodies typically elected much-respected figures to serve as presidents, or moderators, who could facilitate contentious debates. This was the model followed by the Articles of Confederation, so the framers wrote the title “president” into the Constitution. That done, they created an office that had absolutely nothing in common with the presidency under the Articles. Not only did the new president assume executive functions, he also shed the role the old president had played, presiding over Congress.
George Washington was the first to exercise powers of the presidency under the Constitution, and he, like many presidents since, endeavored to expand the limits of his office. Neither John Hanson nor any of the eleven other men who presided over Congress during interim management (from July 2, 1776, to March 1, 1781) or under the Articles of Confederation were entitled to “run the country,” as we say of presidents who have held office since 1789. They warrant neither blame nor credit for all that might have happened during their terms in office. Historically speaking, they were role players only, not stars. We can grant John Hanson his due, but no more.
 Here, I’m consulting the Constitution Society: http://www.constitution.org/hist/first8pres.htm. This appears on numerous sites almost verbatim.
 Journals of the Continental Congress, February 7, 1781, 19:126.
 Morris to President of Congress, March 13, 1781, The Papers of Robert Morris, 1781-1784, E. James Ferguson, ed. (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1973), 1:17-19; Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation 1781-1789 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950), 60.
 Reed to Greene, November 1, 1781, Morris, Papers, 1:21.
 For a detailed narrative of the creation of the presidential office, see Ray Raphael, Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).
 This number does not include acting presidents, who served only for a matter of days, or Peyton Randolph, Congress’s first president, who served before the United States declared itself a nation. John Hancock, in office at that pivotal time, arguably has as much right to the claim of “first president” as does John Hanson; they held identical powers, Hanson’s role simply being a formalization of Hancock’s (the only difference was the one-year term under the Articles). Henry Laurens, John Jay, and Samuel Huntington also served before the Articles of Confederation were ratified. Huntington was the sitting president when they were ratified, so he was the first one to serve under that agreement. Thomas McKean took over when Huntington fell ill. Then came Hanson, the first president of Congress selected by delegates who had been elected under the Articles of Confederation — this was the only feature that makes his situation unique. After Hanson, as all the Hanson-was-first-president proponents like to point out, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock (again), Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin served before the new Constitution was up and running in 1789.
Ray, thank you for putting this in a scholarly form. I have been saying this all along up at Stony Point, only to the disgruntlement of my visitors who had watched some History channel conspiracy show the previous evening. I especially agree with your 6th footnote. Washington was of course the first president but Hancock, if anyone else had to have the title, would hold it merely because he had the title of President of Congress on July 2nd, 1776. This has been one of my historical pet peeves!
Thank you for contributing this wonderful, detailed and insightful piece. Funny you should mention this now…I saw this in a local newspaper last month!
As my pedantic colleagues are always quick to point out…it was a “parliamentary” office. Huntington was the President of Congress—-or “President in Congress Assembled.”
The timing of the Articles are interesting in that they came about only weeks after Saratoga. Could it have been that there was a perceived need to put together some semblance of government, albeit done in a rushed manner, in order to show the French that the effort they were about to join was seeking to assume the trappings of legitimacy?
It seems reasonable to assume that the drafters understood that the Articles were to be something temporary and the whole concept of a proper form of government would be revisited when the war came to an end. As such, it does not seem surprising that this stop gap effort was less than perfect.
Yes, Saratoga was the catalyst for approving the Articles of Confederation. France would only ally itself with a real nation, not with some makeshift operation. But the Artiles were not a rushed job. Richard Henry Lee’s motion for independence on June 7, 1776, included: “That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures to form alliances” and “That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.” A committee was appointed, and John Dickinson prepared a draft, which Congress spent much time debating in 1776. No consensus could be reached on three tricky issues: whether slaves should be counted in the formula for requisitioning states for funds; where voting should be proportional or by state; and whether states like Virginia could maintain their claims to the west. When Congress fell into disarray that winter it was no closer to a solution, nor did it progress until France seemed on the verge of committing. Also, at that point, currency was in disarray and Congress hoped a regular plan might settle things down. SO: approval was stimulated by need, but the plan itself was carefully considered and debated over time, with numerous alterations along the way. The plan would never have been approved with a strong executive. I discuss that in some depth in chapter 2 of “Mr. President.”
Thanks, Ray. This is an intriguing period and I enjoy your insights.
Years ago I worked at a large corporation. The CEO/Founder was fond of displaying his historical knowledge. Often he’d demonstrate this knowledge by asking some poor trembling employee who was the first President. Then, he’d proudly correct the person by telling him about John Hanson. As these things happen we, the doomed, took note of John Hanson so we could quickly respond with the “correct” answer. Doubtless there are many of us who still remember the “correct” though incorrect answer. Thanks for the great article, Ray.
Great article, Ray! Thank you for exploding another commonly-held myth that needed to be exposed.
Expect a letter of protest from the Hanson family descendants.