Our Forgotten "Presidents"

[ Posted Monday, February 21st, 2011 – 18:29 UTC ]

Happy Presidents' Day, everyone!

The two formerly-individual holidays celebrating Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday have been merged into a single federal holiday -- a holiday which, while intended to honor both Washington and Lincoln, has now become somewhat "genericized" (in name, at least) into a celebration of all our presidents. But what about the forgotten presidents? [Or, to be scrupulously accurate, "presidents"?]

I'm not talking about all those nineteenth-century Presidents of the United States who are now little more than dull and meaningless names to be memorized at some point during our schooling. Presidents such as James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore (and all the rest) are now little more than answers to trivia quizzes for those of us who aren't historians. No, I'm talking about even-more-obscure names from our nation's past. At least everyone recognizes the name James Buchanan, in other words, but how many of us know the name John Hanson? Or Cyrus Griffin?

There are two of these obscure names which do look familiar -- John Hancock and John Jay -- but there are a total of sixteen (or perhaps thirteen, or maybe just eight) men who were called "president" (albeit with a very different definition of the term) that schoolchildren usually never even learn about. Because normally, we start with the first "real" president -- the first chief executive of the United States of America, under our Constitution: George Washington.

But George Washington, the "Father of our Country," didn't take office until 1789. And we had declared our independence thirteen years earlier.

The American Revolution took up some of this intervening time, of course (the war didn't officially end until 1783 or 1784, depending on how you define it), and then our first failed attempt at self-governance took up the rest (The Articles of Confederation). If Americans were honest, we'd call our current government the "Second American Republic" -- but we seldom dwell on our mistakes here, so we just sweep this sort of thing under the rug in our collective memories.

The full timeline goes thusly:

First Continental Congress (September - October, 1774)

Second Continental Congress (May, 1775 - March, 1781)

Congress of the Confederacy (March, 1781 - October, 1788)

The Second Continental Congress was the one which passed the Declaration of Independence, in July of 1776, and the Articles of Confederation in November of 1777. The Articles, however, were not ratified by the last state (Maryland) until February, 1781. Almost immediately afterwards, the Congress changed its name and went on with its business. Officially, the Congress of the Confederacy lasted until March of 1789, but the Tenth Congress never achieved a quorum, because by that point the Constitution had been ratified and would take effect in March of 1789, so nobody was paying any attention to the old caretaker Congress.

Each of these Congresses had a president -- sixteen in all, if you start from 1774.

The first three of these can be discounted, because Peyton Randolph and Henry Middleton (and then Peyton Randolph again, briefly) were in charge of a Congress of colonies technically still part of the British Empire.

The next of these is well-known to schoolchildren, because he got to sign the Declaration of Independence first -- John Hancock. He's so well-known in American folklore than his name itself has become synonymous with the word "signature" -- in other words: "Just put your 'John Hancock' right here on the dotted line." If you date the founding of the United States of America from July 4, 1776, then John Hancock was the first person to have the title "President," although it was still technically "President of the Continental Congress" at that point. Hancock missed presiding over the passage of the Articles of Confederation by a month, and instead Henry Laurens was presiding. John Jay was the next President of the Continental Congress, but would obviously be later remembered for being the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, after the Constitution was ratified. Samuel Huntington was presiding over the Congress when the Articles of Confederation were fully ratified and signed, on March 1, 1781. A good case can be made that this was the official date of the birth of self-government in the United States, or perhaps the day after, when the group reconvened as the "Congress of the Confederacy." Huntington was succeeded by Thomas McKean, when he became too ill to continue his duties.

The first man elected "president" under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was John Hanson. By the Articles, we were to be called "The United States of America" (from Article I). So John Hanson was the first "President of the United States," right?

Well, as with this whole subject, it depends on your definitions. True, we were officially "The United States of America," but not so much, in reality. We were closer to what the European Union is today than to something you could actually call a "country." The Articles of Confederation were what today would be called a Libertarian (or, perhaps, "Tea Party," or "Tenth Amendment enthusiast's") dream. There practically was no central government to speak of, and the States themselves regained almost every "sovereign" power -- including being able to raise taxes. This is why the whole thing didn't work, I should mention, but that's neither here nor there for the moment. There was a national Congress, something along the lines of today's Senate -- each state got one vote, and for contentious issues, they needed nine out of thirteen votes to get things done (or a supermajority of over 69%). Congress had no power to tax, there was no federal judiciary, and there was no chief executive to speak of because there were very few of what we would call "executive powers" at all.

While the Articles did codify the term "The United States of America," it actually used the phrase "the United States in Congress assembled" in pretty much every other paragraph of the document -- meaning the central government (such as it was) was the states coming together "in congress" to decide things that couldn't be handled at the state level, such as treaties with other nations.

And the Articles only mention the word "president" once, and only glancingly at best. It is not capitalized, in an age where every important noun seemed to be worthy of capitalization. This fleeting mention is preceded by the verb "to preside" -- which clearly meant the president was nothing more than the guy who got to wield the gavel in "Congress assembled." To put it another way, "President" literally meant: "the one who presides."

Nonetheless, seven other men (Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock, Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin) all held the post at one time or another, before the Articles fell apart and we were forced to come up with the Constitution. Even this list has its footnotes, as various other men presided without the full title (Daniel Carroll and David Ramsay). John Hancock never even showed up for his second term, leaving his duties to be performed by Ramsay, for example.

If this all sounds very confusing, well the times themselves were pretty confusing. There's always a historical gap (with varying degrees of confusion) between overthrowing a previous government and setting up a new one, as can be seen in various places in the Middle East today. During the Revolutionary War, our Congress had to flee a number of times when British troops advanced upon their chosen meeting place. George Washington's army was almost continuously desperately in need of just about everything (including basics such as food and clothing -- to say nothing of guns, powder, and shot), because Congress was seemingly incapable of fast action (some things, at least, have not changed, eh?), and was pretty much continuously broke during this entire period (this got worse, later, when the Articles of Confederation refused to allow the central government to levy any taxes of any type).

But you've got to admire the men who had to attempt to run such an ad hoc government during a war with a country who was (back then) the unquestioned "superpower" of the globe. The first chief executive, and the first man to be called the "President of the United States of America," was unquestionably George Washington. I'm not saying Barack Obama is the "fifty-second president" (or 54th, or 57th, or 60th, depending on where you draw the historical line). Which is why I put the word "Presidents" in quotes in this article's title. John Hancock (and John Hanson, Cyrus Griffin, and all the rest) are not truly in the same category as Washington and Obama... or even Buchanan and Fillmore.

But what is true is that most of these men have been completely forgotten. The only two who are well-known today achieved this status for other accomplishments (first signer of the Declaration, first Supreme Court Chief Justice). All the rest have faded into complete obscurity.

I feel they deserve better than this. The earliest ones were, pretty much by any definition, treasonous rebels, and they served in their posts in fear of their lives (to say nothing of their "fortunes and sacred honor"), since they doubtlessly would have been executed if they had been caught and our revolution had failed. That should stand for something, at the very least.

So, today, I choose to celebrate our forgotten "presidents," rather than our much-better-known and well-loved Presidents Washington and Lincoln (and all the rest). You'll never see Henry Laurens or Samuel Huntington pictured on a mattress or automobile ad in February, of course, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be remembered and honored for their service to our new nation. And since we have one catchall "Presidents' Day" now, it seemed like the best time to do so.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


-- Chris Weigant


16 Comments on “Our Forgotten "Presidents"”

  1. [1] 
    Kevin wrote:

    I don't know about your American readership, but I always enjoy your educational posts :-)

  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    "But George Washington, the "Father of our Country," didn't take office until 1989."

    It's worth noting that he's "Father of our Country" not just for being the first president but for presiding at the constitutional convention and commanding the continental army during the war, as well as being involved in the patriot movement before independence.

    Nonetheless, good post.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kevin -

    Don't feel bad. I don't know about them, either. Heh. Heh heh.

    dsws -

    Yeah, yeah... well... picky, picky. The whole "begging for Congress to give him some damn money to fight the damn war with the damn British regulars and the goddamn Hessian mercenaries" part of the story, I thought I had adequately addressed (although I freely admit: "your mileage may vary"). But I wanted to keep the whole "Constitutional Convention and post-1987" part of it (to say nothing less of the "post-1989" history) out of this article; because it already had too much factoidal historical heaviness as it was, so I beg your forgiveness on that one.




  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    But George Washington, the "Father of our Country," didn't take office until 1989. And we had declared our independence thirteen years earlier.

    But I wanted to keep the whole "Constitutional Convention and post-1987/B>" part of it (to say nothing less of the "post-1989" history) out of this article;


    I assume you mean "1789".... :D


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    But other than that minor nitpick, it was a great and educational commentary... :D


  6. [6] 
    dsws wrote:

    Heh, I read through the reply without catching that "1989". I suspect that with the unrest in the Arab world, he's been reading about eastern Europe.

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Yea, "1989" stuck with me as well, because Reagan was still President. :D


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Whoops! Thanks for pointing that out, I've fixed it.


  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    My pleasure.. :D

    Glad ta hep out...


  10. [10] 
    Odinseye wrote:

    "The two formerly-i­ndividual holidays celebratin­g Washington­'s Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday have been merged into a single federal holiday "

    Completely incorrect. There is no federal holiday called Presidents' Day. Please refer to federal law Title 5 US Code 6103(a).

    Lincoln's birthday was never a federal holiday. Washington­'s birthday was a federal holiday which used to be observed on the 22nd. In 1968 a federal law, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, was passed moving several holidays to specific Mondays of the respective months in order to create three day weekends. This law took effect in 1971. This law is often mistakenly believe to have merged and renamed Washington­'s and Lincoln's borthdays, but it actually did not. That effort never made it out of committee. All the law ended up doing is moving the federal observance of Washington­'s Birthday to the 3rd Monday in Feb.

  11. [11] 
    Odinseye wrote:

    More info regarding the myth of "Presidents' Day". Please see the links for information from the federal government, the federal law, and two articles which look at the facts and myths:

    Happy Washington's Birthday!

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:


    Very good reads... :D Thanx


  13. [13] 
    tommymccarthy wrote:

    Well, I see they're whuppin' up on ya' with gusto over here too, Chris....heh

    Just a personal aside....

    When I was in grade school...schoolchildren and many working adults had holidays for BOTH Lincoln's and Washington's birthday...

    This seemed perfectly normal to me....since in Upstate N.Y. we were surrounded by Revolutionary War Battlefields, and were in the heart of the Abolitionist, and Women's sufferage movements "home turf"..... We were also one of the final stops on the "underground railroad" for slaves escaping to Canada.

    (Go figure....I grew up to be a Liberal)

    I remember being very surprised that cousins in Virgina did NOT celebrate Lincoln's birthday....and never had...
    I was too young to understand that some of their parents had not even accepted the results of the Civil War!

    Off to FTP

    Hoping you are well

  14. [14] 
    Odinseye wrote:

    The holiday issue I bring up is not a North vs South, Union vs Confederacy, or Conservative vs Liberal thing. I am a liberal, raised in states which had nothing to do with the Civil War, and which observe Lincoln's Birthday.

    It is an issue of correct vs incorrect. As a federal holiday, President's Day is incorrect and Washington's Birthday is correct.

  15. [15] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Odinseye -

    Perhaps, but it is also a pretty nitpicky issue, you've got to admit. "Presidents' Day" is so ingrained in the American consciousness now that it is in widespread useage.

    Here are a few examples.

    Senate calendar:

    House calendar:

    At least the Senate got the apostrophe right. Sigh.

    But in any case, if I ever write about it again, I will surely include a side reference to the citations you have posted. Picking nits, I must confess, is a favorite hobby of mine, so you're in luck.



  16. [16] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    tommymccarthy -

    As a kid, I went to Gettysburg, Anteitam, Monticello, Mt. Vernon, Ford's Theater, Independence Hall, as well as more historic sights than you can shake a stick at in DC, so I know exactly what you mean.

    I bet your cousins called it "the war between the states" or even "the war of northern agression" too, didn't they?



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