Study Guide

John Hanson in Articles of Confederation

By The Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson

John Hanson

A Loophole in History

Pop quiz: who was the first President of the United States?

The answer is George Washington, but there should be a tiny asterisk next to his name. As you've figured out by now, the nation's government didn't exist in its current form until the Constitution took effect. That's when Washington won the office and solidified his historical status as the first President. Before that, the United States was run entirely by the Congress of the Articles of Confederation.

That's right, there were no Presidential elections. (Where would 18th-century SNL have gotten its material?)

If you've read any of the text of the Articles of Confederation, you've probably run across the phrase "the United States, in Congress assembled." Since Congress had legal and executive authority under the document, the leader of Congress was arguably the leader of the nation.

John Hanson was elected President of Congress in 1781, so he was the first man to officially bear the title of "President of the United States, in Congress assembled." (Source)

And we…sort of remember him for it.

His home state of Maryland was the last to ratify the Articles of Confederation; Hanson signed the document on his state's behalf before being elected by the other delegates to this ceremonial leadership position (Source).

Because of all this, some history buffs consider him the "first" President.

President of...Meh

Those amateur historians are pretty much trolling, though. Hanson's position was completely different from the presidency under the Constitution. He served for only a year, did not preside over an executive branch of government, and did not have any of the powers associated with the office today, like appointing judges and signing bills into law. In today's government, Hanson would be more similar to the Speaker of the House than the President.

So why does he matter? After all, some accounts suggest that Hanson hated being "President" (Source). Some people in Connecticut even argue that Samuel Huntington, who was President of the Continental Congress from 1777-1781, was the real "first, first President."

Seriously, some folks get really worked up over this.

The important thing to take away is that the office of President of Congress wasn't important: the national government was so weak and ineffective in enforcing the law under the Articles of Confederation that the whole system eventually got thrown out. By the time the OG George W. rolled around, the nation was on a totally different program.