Pop quiz: Who was our nation’s first president?
If you answered, “George Washington,” then congratulations! You clearly paid attention in grade school. Unfortunately, you’re wrong. Sort of.
Think back to your history books. The United States declared independence in 1776. The Revolutionary War ended in 1781. Yet Washington did not take office until April 30, 1789. So, who was running things during our country’s infancy?
That would be our first eight presidents – starting with a man named John Hanson.
You see, our country was technically formed in 1781 with the adoption of The Articles of Confederation. Back then, both legislative and executive power was the domain of Congress. But a president was needed to ensure order, moderate debates, and make administrative decisions.
Congress chose John Hanson by unanimous vote. In fact, no one else even bothered to run against him. (Hanson was a major player in the Revolution and an influential member of Congress.) As the first president, Hanson had his work cut out for him. After all, no one had ever been president before, and the role was poorly defined. His title was technically President of the Confederation Congress but was often styled as President of the United States in Congress
Hanson took office just as the war ended. Almost immediately, the Continental Army demanded payment. Unfortunately, after such a long war, there were no funds to meet their salaries. As a result, the soldiers threatened to overthrow the new government and install Washington as a monarch.
Most members of Congress fled for their lives, leaving Hanson as the only one left to “keep the lights on.” With Washington’s help, he deftly managed to calm the situation and keep the country together.
As president, Hanson ordered all foreign troops off American soil. This was quite the feat, considering many European countries had a stake in America. Hanson established the Great Seal of the United States, which every subsequent president has used on official documents. Hanson also oversaw creation of the first Treasury and Foreign Affairs Departments. In 1782, he proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November a day of Thanksgiving, establishing a tradition that
continues to this day.
The law only allowed a president to serve a one-year term during any three-year period, so Hanson accomplished quite a lot in such a short time. Following his departure, seven other presidents were elected before Washington. These were Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock, Nathan Gorman, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin.
So, why don’t we ever hear about these men? Well, the presidency was quite different back then, being more administrative than executive. More importantly, the Articles didn’t work too well. The states had difficulty agreeing on important issues, requiring a new frame of government. (We call it the Constitution.) Finally, it’s fair to say that any man who served before Washington would become a footnote in history. After all, the six-foot-two general cast a very long shadow…figuratively and literally!
That said, it’s time for Hanson and his successors to get their due. They helped stabilize the country during a time of crisis. They were public servants of a nascent nation, who paved the way for Washington and every other president to come.
John Hanson’s story also shows just why Presidents Day is so important. It gives us a chance to reflect on the challenges our country has faced, as well as the men who helped us overcome them. A chance to love and appreciate our nation even more.
So, on behalf of everyone at ClearVista Financial, I wish you a happy Presidents Day!