by Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History
March 15, 2011 · Comments Off
In all the talk about whether Maryland should replace John Hanson with Harriet Tubman in National Statuary Hall, one mistaken idea keeps cropping up. It’s this notion that John Hanson was really “the first President of the United States.”
No, he wasn’t.
It is ironic that the proponents of this idea, such as Maryland Senator Mike Miller, cast themselves as the guardians of truth, conscientiously defending the past from revisionists who want to “rewrite history.” Ironic because their version of John Hanson is a myth.
The real story goes like this: John Hanson was a delegate from Maryland to the Continental Congress in the early 1780s. As you no doubt recall from high school history class, the Continental Congress was the convention of representatives from the thirteen colonies (later states) which served as a very loose government from 1774 to 1789. This was before the Constitution was adopted, before our republic was actually founded.
Anyway, in 1781 John Hanson was elected president—literally, the presiding officer—of the Congress. That was his title: “president of Congress.” This was not in any sense an executive position; it was a parliamentary role. Hanson was the ninth president of Congress since its inception in 1774, and the third man to occupy the seat following the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in March 1881. He wasn’t the “President of the United States” any more than his predecessor Thomas McKean or his successor Elias Boudinot was. A total of fifteen men served terms as president of Congress, and the reason we don’t remember their names is because the job wasn’t all that important. This was by design: Americans were terrified of central government and abhorred anything that smelled remotely like a dictatorship. They were almost neurotic about it, in fact. The president of Congress simply wasn’t allowed to have any power.
As historian Edmund Burnett explained in his 1941 study of the Continental Congress, “the presidents of Congress were almost solely presiding officers, possessing scarcely a shred of executive or administrative functions.” Calvin C. Jillson and Rick K. Wilson, authors of Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774-1789, are even more blunt. In their chapter on the role of the president of Congress, they refer to the “fundamental irrelevance” of the job. The president of Congress had no power or decision-making authority at all; he was there to preside over meetings and sign papers.
John Hanson found the work tedious. Within eight days of taking office he was writing to his son-in-law that he wanted to resign. This was a phenomenon that would be repeated throughout the life of the increasingly irrelevant and dysfunctional Continental Congress: delegates avoided attending the sessions whenever possible, and even the men elected president preferred to stay home (one of Hanson’s successors actually stayed at a friend’s house for six weeks and told Congress to write him if they needed anything). Hanson stuck it out from a sense of duty, though, and served his full one-year term. He did, however, succeed in transferring many of his paperwork responsibilities to the secretary of Congress.
So how did the story get started that John Hanson was the first President of the United States?
The origin of the legend seems to lie with one George Adolphus Hanson, a 19th century amateur genealogist and booster of anyone and everyone named Hanson. His work was full of mistakes (he thought John Hanson was of Swedish extraction, for example) and embellishments so rich they seem almost hallucinatory. He magnified John Hanson’s brief term presiding over Congress into a glittering career, with Hanson one of the pillars of the Revolution and a key architect of the new nation. The story was picked up and given wider currency by a journalist named Seymour Wemyss Smith, who argued that the real father of our country wasn’t George Washington, but John Hanson. When Smith’s fact-challenged book, John Hanson, Our First President, was published in 1932, Carnegie Magazine dismissed it as a “preposterous” rewriting of history. Which it was.
The point here isn’t to belittle the memory of John Hanson or any of the other men who served as presidents of Congress. The issue is one of historical accuracy. The government under the Articles of Confederation was hamstrung and ineffectual, and men who might have become leaders—such as the presidents of Congress—were prevented from exercising their talents. After all, it was this fundamental failure of government that led the Founders to scrap the whole shebang and start all over again with the Constitution.
John Hanson was a fine patriot and a dedicated public servant. He deserves to be honored for his accomplishments. But he wasn’t the first President of the United States, and wishing won’t make it so.