Amercia's first President - John Hanson

By Harry V. Martin

Copyright FreeAmerica and Harry V. Martin, 1995

The most important and critical time, and the most dangerous, as well, of a new nation is its transition period between the time of a revolutionary military victory and the establishment of a civilian government. Too often history has recorded a noble revolution of the people that was tragically corrupted after victory and ended up as a dictatorship, this has happened in Russia, Cuba, France, Mexico and many Asian, African, Central and South American countries.

All nations born of violent revolution falter after the peace is declared. The unity of war leads to fractionalization during peace. To safely guide the end of a successful revolution into a desired civilian government requires people of extraordinary strength, ability and a sense of dedication to the main purpose of that revolution. The heroes of the revolution are indelibly recorded in history, the maintainers of the peace and the true architects of the new government are often forgotten.

The American revolution was no different. Our history books hail the accomplishments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. In fact, we record George Washington as the first President of the United States, yet he wasn't. Washington was the eighth man to serve as President, not the first. The adage that the winners write history is certainly apropos in American history books. From the period 1774 to 1781, the United States was not "united", it had no national government. The individual states made the respective decisions and transmitted them to their congressional representatives. The representatives were paid by the State they represented and not from the national treasury. The new nation was virtually formed on March 1, 1781, with the ratification of The Articles of Confederation, a document proposed on June 11, 1776, before the Declaration of Independence, but not agreed upon by Congress until November 15, 1777. But the Maryland delegation refused to sign the document until Virginia and New York ceded their western lands. When Maryland signed the document in 1781, the United States, as a nation, was united. The Articles of Confederation formed the United States of America in perpetuity. All major legislation required an unanimous vote of all States. This, in itself, created sufficient problems and was the cause for the convention that drew up the new Constitution.

George H. Ryden, Professor of Historical and Political Science of the University of Delaware stated during the first half of this century, "Every boy in school should know that the Articles of Consideration was the first form of government or Constitution of the United states of America."


The Articles of Confederation, America's first Constitution, called for the election of a President of the United States in November. The mindset of the nation was that it did not want a strong central government nor did it want any individual assuming the mantle of dictator or king. The States were to remain sovereign and the new nation would have limited powers. Because of this philosophy, the President of the United States was limited in his term of office, to one year in any three year period. In fact, members of Congress also had severe term limitations. On the first Monday in November, the Congress would elect the President of the United States in Congress Assembled. The President not only presided over the Congress, but was the executive office of the nation who was supplied with a household, servants and a carriage. But his salary was only that of a member of Congress and it was paid by the State he represented. Expenses of the household, servants and carriage were paid by the Congress.

The President formed a government consisting of departments, and was the only individual in America who had the authority to correspond, entertain, and negotiate with foreign governments. Though eight years later, the office of President would be more powerful under a centralized federal system, the first presidency had no defined terms and each new experience carved out the foundation for the future presidency under the Constitution of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln stated that the United States had four constitutions. The first was the Articles of Association forming the United Colonies, the second was the Declaration of Independence, the third was the Articles of Confederation, and the final was the Constitution of March 4, 1789.

When George Washington was elected President in 1789, he received 69 votes, Washington was one of thirteen candidates for the position. The ballot contained a list of many names, and delegates voted for two men. Washington was selected by every delegate and John Adams had the plurality of second place votes, 34 in total. Prior to the Constitution, from 1781 to 1788 Congress voted for the President. The President was required to come from their ranks of Congress. Under the Constitution, electors were selected for the Electoral College. Unlike the first President who had the vote of all 13 states, Washington only received the vote of 10 states, because three states did not belong to the Union under the new Constitution, at first.

The government under the Articles of Confederation established the groundwork for the new Constitution to be implemented. Here is what the government under the Articles of Confederation did to pave the way for the new Constitution.

It called the Constitutional Convention for the purpose of making a more perfect Union. Actually the call for the convention was for the purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation, not to replace them. It named the day for the first meeting of the convention. It named the electors. It named the day for the selection of electors. It named the day when the more perfect Union would begin to act. It named the day for electors to meet. It provided all the election appliances. It conducted the election for President under the new Constitution. It counted votes in the election. It issued the certificates of election for George Washington and John Adams. It notified Washington and Adams of their election. It conducted the inauguration of Washington and Adams. It conducted the election for the first U.S. Senators. It inaugurated the first U.S. Senators. It provided the New Capitol of the United States, New York City. It provided the President's official residence in New York City. The Constitutional Convention was required to report its finding to the Congress, which was still governed by the Articles of Confederation.


So who was America's first President?

John Hanson assumed the Presidency on November 3, 1781, the first man to be elected under the new Articles of Confederation. Hanson was elected by an unanimous vote and all potential candidates refused to run against him because of his work during the revolution and influence in Congress. He was a delegate from Maryland. His family was at the forefront of Maryland's struggle for freedom and equality long before the American Revolution. In 1783, the Maryland Gazette eulogized Hanson on his death November 21, 1783, two years after being elected President. "Thus was ended the career of one of America's greatest statesmen. While hitherto practically unknown to our people, and this is true as to nearly all the generations that have lived since his day, his great handiwork, the nation which he helped to establish, remains as a fitting tribute to his memory. It is doubtful if there has ever lived on this side of the Atlantic, a nobler character or shrewder statesman. One would search in vain to find a more powerful personage, or a more aggressive leader, in the annals of American history. and it is extremely doubtful if there has ever lived in an age since the advent of civilization, a man with a keener grasp of, or a deeper insight into, such democratic ideals as are essential to the promotion of personal liberty and the extension of human happiness. He was firm in his opinion that the people of America were capable of ruling themselves without the aid of a king." It was only in the early part of this century that historians were able to locate Hanson's grave in Prince George County, Maryland. In the dedication of Hanson's statue in the Halls of Congress in 1903, Senator Jonathan P. Dolliver of Iowa described Hanson as "a man who in a peculiarly appropriate sense was the representative of the national ideal throughout the Revolutionary struggle." Hanson's statue does not reside with the other statues donated by the 50 states, his remains exclusive in the corridor between the House and the Senate. James Madison was an ardent admirer of John Hanson, as he saw in him not only exalted virtues, but also ideas and ideals, and a poise and a sagacity as a statesman, which caused him to he held in esteem by the people. Abraham Lincoln stated that Hanson should share equal honors with George Washington.

Hanson is known as "the forgotten man". His forefathers and his sons have had long distinguished careers in the service of their country, but because of the struggle between the nationalist and the federalists in the late 1780s, the work of men like Hanson, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, Nathan Gorham, Arthur St. Clair and Cyrus Griffin, all presidents before Washington, have been eclipsed. The American education system has neglected this critical point in American history, an era in which the very nation, itself, was shaped from the sword to the plowshare. George Washington referred to the election of Hanson by stating, "I congratulate Your Excellency on Your appointment to fill the most important seat in the United States."


According to the scarce historical documents of this time, there is sufficient evidence to support the fact that there was no statesman nor leader in whom Washington reposed more faith and confidence than he did in John Hanson. And for good reason. Hanson organized two companies of riflemen who were the first troops to come from the South to join General Washington's army in New England. Hanson's oldest son, Alexander Contee Hanson, was Washington's private secretary in the field. Alexander also served twice as an elector for Washington. Hanson's second son, Samuel, was a field surgeon for Washington. Samuel, the brother of John Hanson, presented 800 pounds sterling to General Washington to provide shoes for his soldiers at Valley Forge.

Two American presidents also descended from the Hanson family, Henry William Harrison, the ninth President of the United States, and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States. Before becoming President, Hanson and his family were one of the most influential in Maryland. His forefathers came from Sweden with a link to the Swedish royal family. Hanson's great-grandfather, Colonel John Hanson, was a trusted officer of King Gustavus Adolphus. He was killed in the battle of Lutzen during the Thirty Years War while shielding the king. The Swedish king was also slain in that battle. Ten years later, Queen Christina sent the sons of Colonel Hanson to the new world to build a colony. Hanson's grandfather settled eventually in Maryland, an asylum in the New World for Catholics. The colony had friendly relationships with the Indians.

In 1649, the Assembly of Maryland approved a guarantee of perfect toleration to all religious sects. Maryland became a crystallizing center, almost from its beginning, for the growth of personal liberty and religious freedom. Samuel Hanson, father of John Hanson, was a member of the General Assembly of Maryland, considered a distinguished position in the colonists' eyes as equal to a member of Parliament. He also served as the County Sheriff, Commissary, Clerk and a member of the board of visitors of the county school. "He was a man of profound learning and good judgment, experienced as a lawmaker, learned in the law and respected for his attitude toward law enforcement," Jacob A. Nelson stated in his 1939 publication John Hanson and the Inseparable Union. "He created an atmosphere that was becoming to a freeman and exerted an influence that promised rich returns. It was in such a home John Hanson was born and reared."


John Hanson was born on April 3, 1721 (old calendar, April 13 under the current calendar) under the reign of George the First of the House of Hanover, an English king who could neither read nor write the language of the country over which he ruled. Hanson, like his father, assumed the enormously important position of Assemblyman for Charles County, Maryland in 1757. The total population of the colonies at that time was 1.5 million people. Maryland had 75,000 people.

After the battle of Bunker Hill (Breed's Hill) on June 17, 1775, Hanson argued and pleaded the cause of the colonies. On July 26, 1775, he spoke out in the Maryland Convention. At that convention he fought for and accomplished the overthrow of the proprietary government, and by resolution the supreme control of the colony was placed in the provincial convention. He pledged that he, himself, with his personal efforts, his humble power, his fortunes, would support to the limit, the present opposition. This is very similar to the pledge made by delegates to the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

Hanson realized that the American Revolution was more than a movement to become untangled from another power; that it was really a crusade to obtain freedom and liberty. He knew that this would not be accomplished by mere words, resolutions and hostile meetings, but that action and organization were essential from the civil angle, no less than from the military. Hanson was a man of deeds, not words. He was not a fiery orator, he was a man of action. While serving as a member of the Maryland Convention, Hanson also served as chairman of two important committees from Frederick County, the Committee of Observation and the Committee of Correspondence. He was also treasurer of his county and entrusted with the funds to pay not only the soldiers, but also the delegates to the Continental Congress. He established a gun-lock factory in which arms and ammunition were manufactured and created several powder mills. Besides organizing the first two companies of riflemen to serve with Washington from the South, he also established 40 companies of Minute Men. Maryland eventually supplied 13,800 men to reinforce the Continental Army, that represented about 18 percent of the total population of Maryland. When John Hancock became the President of the Continental Congress, he looked upon John Hanson as one of the most trustworthy and diligent men in the colonies. He appointed him a member of a committee of two to transmit $300,000 to General Washington for the maintenance of an army in Canada. Two of Hanson's brothers also served in the Army. Hanson lost two sons in the Revolutionary War.


At the time of Hanson's elevation to President of the United States, the British and Americans were just beginning peace negotiations after seven years of war. Less than a month before Hanson was elected President, the British had surrendered at Yorktown, assuring the end of the Revolutionary War. This was a time when the government had to shift from a military character to a civil status. One of the most difficult problems facing President Hanson was the question of reducing the army and disbanding it without funds to pay for services performed. This created great discontentment among the soldiers. Colonel Lewis Nicola, the Army's supply officer, proposed to Washington the establishment of a limited American Monarchy with Washington assuming the throne. Nicola had the support of Washington's officers and troops. The troops were willing to stage a coup d'Žtat fearing dismissal without pay. The soldiers revolted and surrounded the Congress for a day. After that one day siege, the delegates fled, causing Congress to collapse and left Hanson as the only person in the entire government, Hanson pacified the troops and held the Union together. Had Hanson panicked, the United States government would have vanished and a monarchy may have been created in 1782, seven years before Washington became President under the new Constitution.

It was Hanson's strong will that forced the British to back down at the peace conference. The British did not recognize an American national government and wanted to negotiate with each colony. Hanson ordered all foreign troops off United States soil, the first time in nearly 200 years foreign troops were absent from the 13 colonies. He also ordered all foreign flags down. President Hanson established the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. He also established the first U.S. Treasury Department, the first Secretary of War and the first Foreign Affairs Department. President Hanson also declared the fourth Thursday of every November as Thanksgiving Day, a date that still remains 211 years later.

The Great Seal of the United States was first used on September 16, 1782, by President Hanson when he signed the orders for an exchange of military prisoners. In 1803, the U.S. Supreme Court discussed the legality of the Great Seal, ruling that it was created by the first President of the United States and has been used ever since. The Supreme Court ruled that the signature of the President and the stamp of the Great Seal are necessary to consummate law. It was President Hanson who recommended the creation of the Seal and there have been no changes in it since it was created under the Hanson Administration. President Bill Clinton is required to use that very same seal created by President Hanson in 1782 and made by craftsmen in the United States.

On July 24, 1789, President Washington requested the delivery of the Great Seal, recognizing that he was not technically President of the United States without it. In fact, the absence of the Great Seal created a need to call an emergency session of Congress. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson introduced a resolution that stated that "Washington accepts every condition, law, rule and authority, under the Great Seal and the first President of the United States John Hanson".

Foreign governments recognized Hanson as the President of the United States and two nations recognized the new nation in 1782 when Hanson was President, the Netherlands and Sweden.

President Hanson had no rules established for him when he became the first President. He sculpted the office and carefully molded it into the foundation under which Washington took office. Over 60 years ago, one author said of Hanson, "On his shoulders rested the difficult task of falling the timbers and hewing them into shape for use in the immediate erection of the national structure. He can well be compared to a Caesar, an Alexander, a Washington or a Lincoln when it comes to measure his power of leadership, or when it comes to count the steps taken to perfect a workable government."


Many prominent Americans opposed the new Constitution, including people like Patrick Henry. The Articles of Confederation called for such a perfect Union that it destroyed itself because it was almost impossible to amend them. A bitter struggle between the Nationalists and the Federalists ensued over the concept of the new Constitution. Only 10 of 13 states voted approval of the new Constitution and when Washington was elected President. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia participated. New York, South Carolina and Rhode Island did not vote approval of the new Constitution and were not part of the nation under the Constitution until 1790.

Winners write history. The Federalists prevailed over the Nationalists. The feared centralized government took hold and the rights of States, once absolutely guaranteed under the Articles of Confederation, were gradually eroded. As a direct result of the erosion of State's rights, the nation was eventually driven into the Civil War of 1860-65.

On the 200th anniversary of the surrender of Cornwallis, the Congress of the United States struck a bronze medallion showing Washington reviewing the troops. On the reverse side of that medallion is a commemorative to John Hanson, "First President under the Articles of Confederation". John Hanson was more than a presiding officer of Congress, he was the first President of the United States and established traditions and institutions that are still preserved in the American Presidency. His name may be forgotten, but his work established the foundation of this nation.