So, who was the first President of the United States? George Washington right! Well, not necessarily. It turns out this is debatable.
Between 1776 and 1789, five men can actually lay claim to the title of the first President: John Hancock, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, John Hanson and George Washington. All five men operated as head of state for the new nation. Perhaps the essential question, therefore, is when did we become the United States of America?
In 1775, the Second Continental Congress formed. Its first President was Peyton Randolph. The second President was John Hancock. It was during John Hancock’s tenure that the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. With this document, the colonies became independent and the Second Continental Congress was the governing body of these independent states. The President of the Second Continental Congress was effectively head of state. Although there was not a constitution or much of a governmental structure at all, the united States did have a fledgling government. This government coordinated the activities of the thirteen states, mustered an army and appointed a Commander-in-Chief, George Washington. In this regard, one can make a case that John Hancock was the first President.
Although the United States celebrates July 4, 1776 as Independence Day, we were not, however, considered the United States of America at that time. In fact, in the Declaration of Independence, the word “united” was not considered a pronoun and thus not capitalized. Our real birthday, arguably, is March 1, 1781, when the Articles of Confederation were adopted. This murkiness reemphasizes the ambiguity between 1776 and 1789.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the terms for President only lasted one year. The first man to hold that position for a year was John Hanson. Hanson, a Maryland native, accomplished a number of highly important tasks. He established the first State Department, ordered all foreign troops on U.S. soil, established the U.S. Mint, called for the first national Census, negotiated a peace treaty with Britain, established the Great Seal of the United States, declared the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday, Thanksgiving, and established the first central bank. Hanson achieved impressive accomplishments for a single year in office.
However, it was on March 1, 1781, that the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union came into effect. Hanson did not take office until November 5, 1781. Samuel Huntington, who was President of the Continental Congress from 1779 1781, presided over the ratification celebration in March 1781. He continued to act as the head of the government until Thomas McKean was elected. McKean held the position for only a few months. Further confusing the situation was that Samuel Johnson was elected to the position between Huntington and McKean, but he refused to serve.
Although Hanson considered himself a successor to Huntington and McKean, he was the first to use the title “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” Huntington and McKean used the title, “President of the Continental Congress,” as did their predecessors. However, a government document does refer to McKean as President of the United States. This was the first time the term is used, thereby, giving McKean some claim to the title. So, if John Hanson is to be considered the first President, it is only because he was the first person elected to a full term after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation.
That said, not only was George Washington not the first US President but apparently he may well be the 9th. The list reads:
- John Hanson (1781-1782 A.D)
- Elias Boudinot (1782-83)
- Thomas Mifflin (1783-84)
- Richard Henry Lee (1784-85)
- John Hancock (1785-86)
- Nathan Gorman (1786-87)
- Arthur St. Clair (1787-88)
- Cyrus Griffin (1788-89)
- The man himself: George Washington (1789-1797)
The first eight Presidents were elected by Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Unfortunately, the Articles of Confederation didn’t work so well. They gave individual states too much power and nothing could be agreed upon. A new doctrine needed to be written – something we know as the Constitution, which was ratified June 21, 1788.
So, George Washington was, arguably, not the first President of the United States, in title at least. He was the first President of the United States under the Constitution we follow today. And the first eight Presidents, under the Articles of Confederation, and even John Hancock before them, are forgotten in history.
Go to the following link if you want to see what the Daily Show has to say about the matter: