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OUR FIRST PRESIDENT

June 30, 2008

            The United States Mint is honoring our nation’s presidents by issuing one-dollar coins.   The coins, each bearing the image of a Commander-in-Chief, will be minted in the order in which the Presidents served our country. The series began with Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison in 2007. Presidents Monroe, Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren are being honored in 2008. 

 The Federal Government will mint and issue four Presidential one-dollar coins per year. The new gold tone dollars will have a reverse design with a striking rendition of the Statue of Liberty. The coins will feature more dramatic artwork, as well as edge inscriptions of the year of minting, the mintmark, E Pluribus Unum, and In God We Trust.

Of course, every American citizen knows that George Washington’s visage is on the paper dollar and on many of our quarters. It seems only right that the image of Washington should appear on the first of these new gold tone dollars.

But wait a minute! Was George Washington really our first president?

The United States declared its independence in 1776, yet Washington did not take office until April 30, 1789. So who was running the country during those first twelve years?

A new government was formed on March 1, 1781, with the adoption of The Articles of Confederation. At first, Maryland refused to sign until Virginia and New York ceded their western lands. The smaller states were fearful that the larger states would gain too much power in the new government.

Once the signing took place in 1781, a President was needed. John Hanson was elected unanimously. 

An oft-repeated myth is that John Hanson was the first President of the United States. A book published in 1932 by Seymour Smith entitled John Hanson – Our First President is the origin of the error. 

Officially Hanson was President of the Continental Congress. He considered himself a successor to others who held the office before him. Hanson was the first to serve a full one-year term, and the first to formally use the title President of the United States in Congress Assembled.

Eight people held that office before George Washington was inaugurated.

1.      John Hanson (1781-82)

2.       Elias Boudinot (1782-83)

3.      Thomas Mifflin (1783-84)

4.      Richard Henry Lee (1784-85)

5.      John Hancock (1785-86)

6.      Nathan Gorman (1786-87)

7.      Arthur St. Clair (1787-88)

8.      Cyrus Griffin (1788-89) 

John Hanson was first elected to represent Charles County, Maryland, in the Colonial Assembly in 1757. He also served as their representative in 1758-1769. He gained a reputation as an outspoken supporter of the American Revolution.

In December of 1779, the Maryland House of Delegates named John Hanson as one of its representatives to the Continental Congress. While Hanson was in Congress, the Articles of Confederation were finally ratified by all the states.

Congress chose John Hanson unanimously as President of that body. George Washington, from Virginia, was among the delegates.

The office of the President of the United States in Congress Assembled was not an executive post. It bears a close resemblance to the modern Speaker of the United States House of Representatives or Vice President of the United States. The office was in existence from 1781 to 1788, under the Articles of Confederation, and was replaced by the office of President of the United States when the Constitution took effect in 1789. Under the Constitution, the office of the President is significantly more powerful.

As President of the United States in Congress Assembled, Hanson was the first presiding officer of the Congress to use that title when dealing with foreign governments, diplomats, or treaties. Congress had little authority beyond those powers that had been specifically delegated to it by the states.

During his one-year term as President of the United States in Congress Assembled, Hanson accomplished a number of things that have had far-reaching effect. Here are some the accomplishments of Hanson’s presidency.

·        Ordered all foreign troops off American soil, as well as the removal of all foreign flags

·        Delivered the official Thanks of Congress to George Washington for his victory at Yorktown

·        Commended General Lafayette and thanked France for his services

·        Pressed states to keep their commitments to send delegates to Congress, which was often short of a quorum

·        Passed legislation for the Bank of North America, the first central bank

·        Appointed a Secretary of the United States to assist in correspondence and record keeping

·        Granted General Washington broad powers to negotiate prisoner exchanges with Britain

·        Established the United States Mint

·        Established the predecessor agency of the State Department

·        Proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving

·        Created the position of Chairman of Congress, a predecessor of the vice-presidency

·        Negotiated a peace treaty with Britain

·        Settled a dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania, with Hanson acting as an equivalent of Chief Justice

·        Called for the first national census

John Hanson took office just as the Revolutionary War ended. The troops demanded to be paid, but there were no funds. The soldiers threatened to overthrow the new government and put Washington on the throne as a monarch. Hanson managed to hold the country together. If he had failed, Washington would never have become our President. He might have become yet another King George.

As we celebrate Independence Day, let’s not forget the many patriots, who like John Hanson, have been all but forgotten.

 

Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly June 2008

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