The myth that George Washington was not the first President of the United States has been kicking around for nearly 100 years. The fundamental argument is that there were Presidents of the Continental Congress (1774-1789) before there was a President under the US Constitution (1789). This is true. There were fourteen men who served in this capacity (some served more than once). The first was Peyton Randolph of Virginia, elected in 1774. The last was Cyrus Griffin, elected in 1788.
The President of the Continental Congress was the presiding officer of that legislative body. His job was to moderate debates, and was largely ceremonial in other respects. He was also responsible for handling the official correspondence of the Congress. Presidents of the Congress could, however, exert some influence based on their personalities and leadership abilities. But their leadership was not official. After the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781, the office of President declined in importance. Indeed, the Congress itself declined in importance and several members elected declined to serve – they would rather serve in their state legislatures, where they would have more impact.
Fast forward to 1933. Seymour Wemyss Smith published a book entitled John Hanson: Our First President. John Hanson was the ninth President of the Continental Congress from November 1781-November 1782. But he was the first “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” under the newly adopted Articles of Confederation. And he was the first President to serve a full one-year term, which was stated in the Articles. Seven more men held this office before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Hanson was able to accomplish quite a lot in a largely ceremonial office. He introduced the Treasury Department, the first Foreign Affairs Department, the first Secretary of War, and he removed all foreign troops from the country. But it was never his role to present a budget, conduct foreign affairs or be the representative of the United States abroad, or do almost anything that the US President under the Constitution would be tasked with doing. The offices were not related and did not represent some sort of continuity. George Washington was the first true President of the United States.
Still, the myth and legend that Hanson was the first president continues to swirl around, largely because Smith’s book is the only one that champions a specific person as the first president. Payton Randolph, the first President of the Continental Congress, has no such champion.
OK, so we’ve given the basic story of the Presidents of the Continental Congress and of John Hanson. What are the bigger historical reasons that make George Washington the first President of the United States? Essentially the problem was with the Articles of Confederation. They created an alliance of 13 independent and sovereign states, entered into “a firm league of friendship with each other.” Although Articles use the phrase “united states of America,” the emphasis was on the “states,” much like the European Union is a union, but each country is sovereign.
For lots of reasons, the system set up under the Articles didn’t work very well. Congress had extremely limited authority. It could not pay off the debt from the Revolutionary War (each individual state would have to pay off its own part of the war debt). It continued to struggle because it was weak, “little more than shadow without the substance,” as George Washington said. Congress could conduct foreign affairs, and declare war, but it couldn’t compel the individual states either to supply troops for the common effort, nor could it tax them to raise a national army. Therefore, to make a long story short, a constitutional convention was called, the Constitution that we know and love was written, and it was that Constitution that created and executive branch and the office of “President of the United States.”
And our chum, George “chopping down cherry trees” Washington, was unanimously elected the first President of the United States in February 1789.
21 February 2022
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
In this landmark work of history, the National Book Award—winning author of American Sphinx explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals–Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison–confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.
The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers–re-examined here as Founding Brothers–combined the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the content of the Constitution to create the practical workings of our government. Through an analysis of six fascinating episodes–Hamilton and Burr’s deadly duel, Washington’s precedent-setting Farewell Address, Adams’ administration and political partnership with his wife, the debate about where to place the capital, Franklin’s attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery and Madison’s attempts to block him, and Jefferson and Adams’ famous correspondence–Founding Brothers brings to life the vital issues and personalities from the most important decade in our nation’s history.