Frank Ford sent me a very interesting article on John Hanson, one of our early presidents before George Washington. Do you remember that the country was actually established in 1781 with the adoption of The Articles of Confederation? But George Washington didn't take office until 1789. So who was running the country during the intervening years? Our pre-Constitution presidents, that's who. They each had a term of just one year and the first to serve a full term was John Hanson*. Take a look:
Looks like we owe him a lot.
Before the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, the states operated under the direction of the Continental Congress, although they remained in principle a Confederation of independent states. Even after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, there was no executive branch. Therefore the President of the Continental Congress, which was a position similar to a Prime Minister, was the highest authority; under the Articles, the position adopted the title President of the United States in Congress Assembled, and 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, which had been specifically delegated to it by the states, and its weakness during this period led directly to a decline in influence and the 1787 Constitution, with a more robust federal model.
Hanson's term as President of Congress, during this critical formation period, did have longstanding influence.
Among the accomplishments of Hanson's presidency of Congress:
* Delivered the official Thanks of Congress to George Washington for his victory at Yorktown
* Commended Gen. Lafayette and thanked France for his services
* Pressed states to keep up their commitments to sending 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 Gen. Washington broad powers to negotiate prisoner exchanges with Britain; Washington immediately worked out a trade of Gen. Cornwallis for Henry Laurens, the first president of the Continental Congress
* Established the United States Mint
* Established the predecessor agency of the State Department
* Proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving holiday
* 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
And we need to remember that George Washington was the first president under the CONSTITUTION. (And from the looks of things it seems that Bill Clinton may well have been the last.)
* John Hanson is sometimes called the first president because he was first to serve a full term but there were two presidents who preceded him: Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKean. Hanson, however, was the first to use the title "President of the United States in Congress Assembled". A lot of inaccuracies have been perpetrated about John Hanson and you can find out what they are here.