It’s Presidents’ Day in the U.S., and we celebrate the 45 men who have held the office, beginning with George Washington. However, was George Washington really the first President? Seems like the simplest question that even a child could answer, but it’s not exactly as clear-cut as you’d think.
(As an aside, Joe Biden is the 46th president, but the 45rd person to hold the office, as Grover Cleveland’s two terms were not consecutive, making him both the 21st and 23rd President. If Donald Trump is elected in 2024, he would be the 45th and 47th president)
The United States declared its independence in 1776, and won the battle of Yorktown in 1781, but George Washington didn’t take office as president until 1789! So who was in charge of running the country until then? Naysayers say no one, but there were a number of patriots who had the title of president. The big question is, president of what?
There were a number of Presidents of the Continental Congress, beginning with the man who signed his name in large script, John Hancock. But were the thirteen colonies now one country on July 4, 1776? Not officially. It wasn’t until the Articles of Confederation were signed in 1781 that we could say that the thirteen colonies were a new unified nation, the United States of America.
The first man elected president under the Articles of Confederation (who didn’t resign immediately, at least) was one John Hanson of Frederick County, Maryland. Who?
Like many of our Founding Fathers, John Hanson (and the eight men who served as President after him) have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Many prominent patriots don’t have statues dedicated to them in Washington, D.C. In fact, a lot of them died penniless and uncelebrated. For more info, see my article:
Fate of the Forgotten Founding Fathers
Once the signing 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 of the United States; the responsibilities were vague and ill-defined, but there were issues to be settled.
As the war for independence wound down, continental troops were demanding back salaries. Many of them were not in favor of the new government and even considered installing George Washington as King. John Hanson was responsible for quelling this discontent and held the rickety congress together.
Hanson is also responsible for ejecting foreign troops out of the new country. This wasn’t easy, as many of our allies felt they had a claim to special privileges due to their aid for the American cause. Among other things, he also established the Treasury, War, and Foreign Affairs departments. All of this in a term of office that lasted only one year.
After him, the following men were elected as President of congress:
- Elias Boudinot 1782-3
- Thomas Mifflin 1783-4
- Richard Henry Lee 1784-5
- John Hancock 1785-6 (elected but could not serve due to illness)
- Dr. David Ramsay (Nov 23, 1785 – May 12, 1786)
- Nathaniel Gorham (May 15, 1786-Nov. 5, 1786)
- Arthur St. Clair 1787-8
- Cyrus Griffin 1788-9
So why don’t we recognize these patriots as our first Presidents? Because we didn’t yet have a constitution that gave the federal government any significant power. As such, they served as President of Congress more than as leader of a united country.
Therefore, George Washington was the first president to serve under a firm constitution that established the United States that we know today. The first 9 presidents? They have faded into history, but let’s not forget their service to a fragile new entity that became a great nation.
Joe Alton, M.D.
You won’t learn about American presidents in the award-winning 4th edition of The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way, but you’ll learn a lot about how to deal with medical issues in disasters and epidemics!