Presidents of the USA Before Washington
Created | Updated Jul 23, 2013
Presidents of the USA
Before George Washington | John Adams | Thomas Jefferson | William Henry Harrison
The Life of Abraham Lincoln | Legacy of Abraham Lincoln | Death of Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis | Ulysses S Grant | William Howard Taft
Dwight D Eisenhower - Early Life | President Dwight D Eisenhower
John Fitzgerald Kennedy | John F Kennedy Administration | Assassination of John F Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson | Richard Milhous Nixon | Bushisms of George W Bush
But George Washington was America's first president. Everyone knows that. He was the leader of the American Revolution, the 'first citizen', the father of his country. He was the Virginian on top.
Well, no. Based on how certain titles and job descriptions are interpreted, many historians consider the original George-Dubya to be a middle president, leaving to the bookshelf presidents as Peyton Randolph or John Hanson (see below) and whoever the US president is when you're reading this1.
Washington may have been, according to who you ask, the eighth or fifteenth President. He wasn't even the first Virginian President of the US.
The questioning of such a basic 'fact' in American history does require some explanation. The government under which America lives is based on its Constitution. However, this wasn't always the case. First, the same government which declared the United States to be a free and independent nation — the Continental Congress — was the only legitimate government of the nation. Seven men served as Presidents of the Continental Congress (if you count these men as President — see below). Later, the Articles of Confederation were adopted, and seven more men took the office of President before Washington.
Some say that Washington must have been the first President because America wasn't a single nation before the Constitution. Some set the creation of the nation at an earlier date. Some are less interested in pedantry and go read a different Entry.
Continental Congress Presidents
During the course of its existence, the Continental Congress had seven men serve as its presiding officer; sometimes this earned them the title of President of the United States.
Really, the job of President of the Continental Congress was more of a premiership than a presidency. They had no special executive powers and this led to a big grey area. The question must be asked — Are they Presidents because they had the title or do they need to have the executive powers too? — to which an answer must inevitably be given: How should I know?. You decide.
Here is a list of the Presidents of the Continental Congress:
Peyton Randolph was a Virginian revolutionary, elected as President of the Congress on 5 September, 1774. He resigned the next month to go back to Virginia for political purposes. He came back to Congress and on 10 May and was re-elected President. He left on 24 May again, and didn't return as President.
Henry Middleton was a conservative South Carolinian who served as President for four days in-between the terms of Peyton Randolph. During his short tenure, however, Middleton managed to have an obsequious letter sent to King George on 22 October, 1774, before Congress dissolved itself. If you consider him to be a President of the US, he would hold the record for the shortest presidency2.
John Hancock was a Massachusetts man, and assumed the Presidency after Peyton Randolph left the office. Hancock served in the office from May 1775 to October 1777. During his time as President, he oversaw the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and its signing. His famous signature on the Declaration is what he is best known for. He also commissioned George Washington be Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces. He would later serve as President of the United States in Congress Assembled from 1785 to 1786. His name would also be put onto a famous Chicago tower.
Henry Laurens was a moderate South Carolina man, who owned one of the largest slave plantations in the state. He was a revolutionary leader in the Carolinas, though his state was among the most loyal to the King. He was elected to the Continental Congress, and after Hancock resigned, Laurens became its president in November 1777. During this time, he recognized Thanksgiving3 as a holiday and tried to help the Continental Army through its war as all good leaders should.
John Jay was a prominent Federalist, later going on to contribute to the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. He was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress from New York in late 1778, and was made president of the body shortly after he arrived. He would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
Samuel Huntington, a Connecticut man, was one of the first prominent revolutionaries to speak out against Britain. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775. He remained a delegate for a while, and was elected to its presidency in 1779. He was very popular in his state, and was actually elected to the Congress after his retirement in 1781, against his will. Some very pedantic people call him the First President of the United States, because he presided over Congress while the Articles of Confederation were ratified. After this, he was given the title of President of the United States in Congress Assembled. However, he never really took on any powers exceeding those of his predecessors.
Thomas McKean was a Delaware man who must have liked titles. He held numerous posts throughout his life, and the title of President of the United States in Congress Assembled must have been one of his favourites. He was elected to the Congress in 1774 and became its President in 1781. He was one of those who helped draw up the Articles of Confederation.
Presidents Under the Articles
Eventually, a government was constructed, which gave the most power to the individual states instead of to the federal government. This government was outlined with the Articles of Confederation. It stood as the national authority in America from 1 March, 1781, when it was ratified by the states, until 1789, when the Federalists got the Constitution adopted officially. The Articles of Confederation weren't what the country needed. They didn't work well. This is one of the reasons that the Articles were replaced, and one reason why its presidents are largely forgotten.
Though most of the power was handed to the state governments under the Articles of Confederation, there was a national government which had an office of 'President'. Basically, the job of this man was not to do too much while also not letting the country fall apart. Officially, the man was 'President of a Committee of the States' or 'President of Congress of the United States, Assembled'4, and was only allowed a one-year term every three years.
He was given some executive powers, similar to those of the Constitutional Presidency, but on a much smaller scale. Presidents under the Articles of Confederation can therefore be considered presidents of the United States, only less powerful than the presidents we are familiar with.
To those who do not consider Presidents of the Continental Congress to be Presidents of the United States and Presidents of the Articles of Confederation to be the holders of that office, John Hanson was the first President of the United States. Some have devoted their lives to recognising the man as the first President. For instance there is a Presidential Museum in a small town in Ohio5 devoted to the man they consider to be the first President.
Hanson was from Maryland. His state was extremely key to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. It had refused to agree to them until New York and Virginia gave up claims to their western lands, as it felt that they would become too powerful with them. This was agreed to, and Maryland signed the Articles of Confederation. Shortly afterwards, the Congress unanimously elected John Hanson, who was one of their number and highly respected, as President. He took the office on 5 November, 1781.
Hanson had to deal with an unruly group of soldiers who demanded payment and threatened to install George Washington as a monarch. The President dealt with this, and managed to avert rebellion. It was quite something to be proud of, really. He also ordered European nations out of America and established a system of government, complete with a Treasury Department, a Secretary of War and a State Department. Perhaps the greatest evidence that Hanson was the first president is that he established the Great Seal of the United States, which all following presidents have used on their documents.
After one year, Hanson resigned the office, and assumed a relatively quiet life. He disliked the idea of a Constitution, and remained opposed to the Federalist ideals until his death in 1783.
One of the most powerful revolutionaries in New Jersey, Elias Boudinot was born in 1740 in Philadelphia. He was one of the benefactors of Alexander Hamilton when Hamilton was a young immigrant. A lawyer and a highly religious man, Boudinot quickly established himself as one of the most powerful men in the colonies.
He was elected to the New Jersey assembly in 1775, and helped promote enlistment into the army to fight Britain. In 1777, he was made Commissary General of Prisoners, and accordingly, he was made a Colonel. Later that year, he was made a Delegate to the Continental Congress, as well as being in charge of prisoners. In 1778, he resigned his prisoner post because its responsibilites barred him from attending Congress. He was re-elected to Congress in 1781, and was made President of Congress in 1782. During his term, the Treaty of Paris was signed, in which Britain recognised American independence. Some people put Boudinot down as the first President, arguing the US wasn't a true nation until Britain recognised its independence. His term as President ran out shortly after this was signed.
After the Constitution was ratified, Boudinot was a Representative for the state of New Jersey in 1789. He served two more terms, and was appointed by George Washington as Director of the US Mint from 1795 - 1805. He was an excellent director, and produced the first coins in the history of the nation. He died in 1821.
Thomas Mifflin, born in 1744 in Philadelphia, was one of Pennsylvania's founding fathers. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, and then joined the legislature of his colony, before being elected to the Continental Congress in 1774. He worked for George Washington as an aide and then for the army in general. He was made a Major-General in 1777 and then a member of the Board of War. He rejoined the Congress in 1782, and was made its President in 1783. He also was the Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and then a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
In 1788, Mifflin took an important state-wide post as President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. He also took a leading role in the State Constitutional Convention, making a Pennsylvania government based on the national government. Benefiting from the design he helped create, Mifflin was elected Governor of Pennsylvania and to the House of Representatives, until his death in 1800.
Richard Henry Lee
Richard Henry Lee was in fact the first Virginian President of the United States. His family was a noble one, and he fought in the French and Indian War on the British side. He returned home, and became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, becoming familiar with many of the great men who would become leaders in the Patriot cause during the American Revolution.
In 1774, Lee was appointed to the First Continental Congress, and was one of its best speakers. He helped lead the Congress into declaring independence. He served in Congress throughout the war, while retaining his post in the House of Burgesses. In 1783, as one of the most senior members, he was made President of the Congress. Though he was opposed to the Federalist system of government, Lee took a post as a Senator in the new post-Constitution government. Interestingly, his descendant Robert E Lee would become the leader of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War.
For biographical information on John Hancock, see the above section on Presidents of Continental Congress.
Hancock served as President under the Articles from 1785 - 1786. If you consider his earlier 'presidency' of the Continental Congress to be a true presidency, then the oft-repeated fact that Grover Cleveland was the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms is false.
Nathaniel Gorham was a Massachusetts man from a normal family. In 1771, he was elected to the State Legislature and served in many, many state-wide offices during the Revolution. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. In 1782, he was elected to Congress, and then again in 1785. In 1786, he earned the office of President of the Congress. He also helped Massachusetts ratify the US Constitution.
Gorham fell from the heights of Massachusetts society after a financial mistake from buying land that led to his losing his fortune. He died in 1796.
Arthur St Clair
Arthur St Clair was born in 1736 in Scotland. If he were born today in Scotland, he would be ineligible for the Presidency of the USA under the Constitution. He served in the French and Indian War, retiring as a lieutenant. He gained experience with the frontier lands and worked for the British governor of Pennsylvania with the frontier lands the state controlled.
During the American Revolution, St Clair backed the Patriots and held various administrative posts before being appointed as a colonel for the Continental Army. He was one of those who attacked Canada in 1775 and supported General Washington in the great victories of Trenton and Princeton. He was put in charge of Fort Ticonderoga, an important strategic location for the Americans to hold, but abandoned it. in 1785, Pennsylvania elected St Clair as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and he served as President of the Congress in 1787. After this, he was appointed Governor of the Northwest Territories and he worked on opening it up further to white settlers. St Clair saw quite a bit of Indian resistance because of the way he treated them.
When the territory of Ohio tried to gain admittance to the Union, St Clair notoriously opposed its entrance as one state and hoped to have it split up, because that would help the waning Federalist party (which he backed) to maintain control of the Senate. Eventually, he lost most of his money and died in 1818. Ohio was admitted as one state.
Cyrus Griffin was the last President before the Constitution allowed George Washington to become America's first President. He was born in 1749 in Virginia and was a noteworthy lawyer of the Patriot cause. He took part in the Virginia state government and, in 1778, was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was elected as a member of the US Congress in 1787 was elected as its President in 1788 and served until the government was replaced the next year.