Myth # 88: John Hanson was the real first president of the United States.

May 18, 2012

John Hanson

This resilient myth has been around for more than one hundred years, as his descendants have sought to plump up his reputation. In 1959, the director of research at Colonial Williamsburg tried to stamp it out–obviously, he was unsuccessful–by writing about whether Peyton Randolph or John Hanson was the first president of the Continental Congress. “The apparent confusion on this point arises form the fact that the Continental Congress existed first as a revolutionary body and then after the formal ratification of the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781 as the congress of the Confederation Government. Most historians, however, refer to this body as the Continental Congress during the entire period of its existence from 1774 until 1788.” He concludes that Hanson was not the first president of the Continental Congress, although he was one of several presidents, none of whom were “president” of the United States. “[Hanson] has sometimes been called the first president of the nation. However, he was in no sense a true executive officer, as were the presidents elected under the Federal Constitution.”

But let’s let Deborah Brower of Maryland, this week’s guest blogger, share her research and set the story straight. Hang on . . . it’s complicated! Or skip to the summary at the bottom, or check out Jon Stewart’s hilarious take on the Hanson claim at www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-december-5-2001/hail-to-the-thief .

Most people have never heard of John Hanson. If you know him at all, you probably live in Maryland and are familiar with the highway that bears his name.  It’s also possible you may have read about the recent effort to replace his statue in the U. S. Capitol with one of Harriet Tubman.  (Not a bad idea, interjects Mary) You might have encountered him as a featured article in one of those pocket books on the Constitution.  It is amazing that someone so obscure has such a wealth of misinformation attached to him. Of course maybe that’s why, the more obscure the subject more likely it is to be taken at face value.

We do know John Hanson was born in April of 1721 near Port Tobacco, Maryland.  His family origins are obscure, but by the time of his birth they were established members of the planter class. By the 1770s he’d moved to Frederick, Maryland and was serving as the chief officer of the County’s Committee of Safety, a Revolutionary Era alternative to the British Colonial government of Frederick County.  He kept the County and it’s resources firmly in the control of Maryland’s revolutionaries; he was a master at putting them to the best use.  Hanson is an excellent example of the sort of men who worked to fulfill the obligations of their colonies to the Continental Congress and the army.  These men don’t often get credit because they are in the shadows behind the new state government, Congress and the Military.  Although important, their roles just don’t get much attention.  John Hanson’s obligations kept him in mostly in Frederick until 1779 when he was elected as one of Maryland’s delegates to the Continental Congress.  In late 1780 he was elected to preside over Congress under the ratified Articles of Confederation.

Contrary to the general impression, not everyone thought the Revolution would result in a single nation.  Most thought when the war was over the colonies would go on as separate sovereign nations.  All that was needed was a “league of friendship” to deal with a limited number of common interests. The Articles of Confederation were a statement of how the Continental Congress had been operating thus far.   They enumerated the very minimal powers relinquished by the states.  Any power granted by the document was placed solely in the control of Congress.  There was no executive branch, judicial branch or senate only a single body, the Congress.  The difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are best stated by the documents themselves: The Articles of Confederation, “…, we the undersigned Delegates of the States…”; and the Constitution, “We the People of the United States”.

By June of 1780 when John Hanson finally took his seat in Congress, Maryland was the only colony left who had not agreed to the Articles of Confederation. The competing claims of the Colonies and various land speculation companies to the western territories was at issue.  Some colonies had their boundaries set by charters; others had no set boundaries and claimed they extended all the way to the Pacific Coast. Maryland was the only landless state still holding out.  On the surface Maryland argued all that undeveloped territory would make the landed states too powerful.  In reality Maryland’s motivation was the self interests of some of its leading citizens who were among the investors in land companies that purchased directly from the Indians.  The land in question was within the projected boundaries of landed colonies (mostly Virginia and New York). It was not so much Maryland trying to get the landed states to agree to a set border as it was to get the claims of the land companies recognized.  To make it even more complicated there were some Marylanders that had invested in Virginia based companies.  It is fascinating to follow the dance of Maryland legislators over their competing land claims.   George Mason’s letters referring to Maryland and her “twisted sister” Delaware make it clear that people were aware of what was going on behind the scenes.  The way things played out in Virginia, Maryland and Congress rival any back room dealings going on today.

While the other delegates were back in Maryland intriguing, John Hanson sat in Philadelphia, often the only Marylander there.  To break this impasse,  elements in Congress suggested the land claims might have more success in a ratified Congress.  Meanwhile British ships were manacling the Chesapeake and Maryland appealed to the French for protection. The French minister insinuated they were reluctant to place ships in the Chesapeake to shield Maryland because the Articles were not ratified.  If Maryland could see her way to finally sign, the French would be in a better position to help. So Maryland relented, still holding a faint hope for the land claims in a Confederation Congress; which was better than the possibility of being turned into a cinder by the British. We may never know for sure, but it would come as no surprise that John Hanson’s election as president was part of the deal.  On March 1, 1781, the signatures of Maryland’s delegates were added to the Articles of Confederation.  Now the Articles were ratified and took effect with great celebration.

On to the Myths

Beginning the last quarter of the 19th century a series of John Hanson descendants and some others began to slowly reinvent him.  One slight exaggeration was piled on top of another with the result of burying the real John Hanson.

1. John Hanson is NOT Swedish.

Since the publication of an article by genealogist George Ely Russell titled “John Hanson of Maryland, a Swedish Heritage Disproven”, It has been accepted that John Hanson is not Swedish or from the royal Vasa line.  The work of Russell was so compelling that a John Hanson memorial bust and plaque were removed from Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Church in Philadelphia. The myth was started in the 19th century by George Adolphus Hanson who was trying link his family line to John Hanson.

2. John Hanson is NOT Black. 

3. John Hanson is NOT the first Black President of the United States.

George Russell discovered an indentured servant who came to Maryland by way of Barbados named John Henson/Hanson.  This Hanson might have been the grandfather of John Hanson. For some reason in the 1990s, comedian Dick Gregory took this to mean John Hanson was black.  His proof was a daguerrotype of a John Hanson!  Put aside the fact that photography was invented a long time after Hanson died. The man in the photograph named John Hanson was a senator in Liberia, Africa, during the mid 19th century. On the back of the two dollar is an engraving of the signing of the Declaration of Independence purportedly showing a Black John Hanson. Hanson did not sign the Declaration and was not even in Congress until 1780.

4. John Hanson was NOT a mentor or longtime friend of George Washington.

In spite of claims to the contrary, according to researchers at Mount Vernon there is no evidence of a relationship between George Washington and John Hanson before 1781. There is only one reference in Washington’s journal of a “Mr. Hanson” visiting Mount Vernon in 1772, but it is not John Hanson, according to the editors.

5. John Hanson did NOT solve the Western Land question.

According to Ralph Levering who wrote the most extensive analysis of John Hanson’s political career in his “John Hanson: Public Servant”, there is no record of John Hanson’s stand on the Western land question, let alone documentation that he was responsible for the solution. There is no evidence that anything called “the Hanson Plan” ever existed.

6. John Hanson was NOT elected unanimously.

All the entry for Nov 4th in the Journals of the Confederation Congress records about the election of a presiding officer is that it occurred and John Hanson was elected. Nothing about a vote count.  Representatives for two states, New York and Delaware were not even present that day.

7. Hanson was NOT elected over Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton or Hancock.

The Nov. 4th entry does not say who (or if) anyone ran against Hanson. Recently it has been asserted that John Hanson was elected over Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Hancock.  None of them were eligible to be president of Congress Assembled.  According to the Articles (#9) you had to be a member of Congress to be president and none of them were.  In fact Hanson only accepted on the condition that Maryland guarantee his return to Congress following state elections in a few weeks.  If he had not been returned he would not have been eligible to serve.  The entry for the day in the Journal does not say who (or if) anyone ran against Hanson.

8.  John Hanson is NOT the first president of the United States of America or the first president of the Confederation Congress.

When the articles of Confederation were ratified on March 4th things did not change, Samuel Huntington continued as president, making him the first Confederation president of Congress.  In July he resigned; there was an election and the next man elected refused to serve.  Another election was held and Thomas McKeon was chosen to finish Huntington’s term.  McKeon is the second president of the Confederation Congress and the first elected, but did not serve a one year term.  On November 4, 1781, John Hanson was elected president of Congress.  This made him the third president of Congress and the second elected, but the first to serve a one year term. 

9. John Hanson did NOT establish the first Thanksgiving or set a precedent for future days of thanksgiving and prayer to be held on the last Thursday of November.

Congress issued proclamations for a day of Thanksgiving every year since 1777.  Most often they chose a day in December. During the first Confederation Congress  a committee (not including Hanson) chose a day in November. In the draft the words “ the last”  written before Thursday are crossed.  They were not trying to establish a precedent for future days of thanksgiving.  They were following a practice already in place. The next year they went back to a date in December. It was not the holiday we think of as “Thanksgiving”.  The day was meant to be spent in church in prayer.

Summary:

While John Hanson was president, he voted in Congress as a delegate of Maryland just like every other  delegate in Congress..  This is an indicator that his real role was closer to the modern Speaker of the House. It is telling that even though he died shortly after he left Congress there is no mention of his being the president of anything but Congress and nothing about “first.”  When John Hanson died in 1783, his obituary in the Maryland Gazette stated, “This gentleman has long been a servant to his country, in a variety of employments, the last of which was that of president of Congress.”  By the time John Hanson’s wife died about thirty years later she was remembered only as the widow of a delegate to the “…old Revolutionary Congress”, not the wife of a President.

John Hanson should be remembered for his contributions to Maryland’s Revolutionary War efforts which took place primarily in Frederick County.  His service in Congress was a post script to his career.  He outlined his misgivings in letters to his family.  He told them it was his duty to stay because if he left there would not be enough attending delegates to do business.  There weren’t even enough to hold another election.  The fact that he was willing continue when he had good reasons to excuse himself, is to his credit.

The continuing efforts to turn John Hanson into something he is not does him a great disservice and corrupts the public perception of history.  I would urge anyone whose curiosity has been peaked to do some searches, you will be appalled.

Sources

Jensen, Merrill, “The Articles of Confederation”, University of Wisconsin Press, 1970

Jensen, Merrill, “The New Nation”, Vintage Books, 1951

Levering, Ralph B. “John Hanson, Public Servant”. Maryland Historical Magazine 71             (Summer 1976): 113–33.

Russel, George Ely. “John Hanson of Maryland: A Swedish Heritage Disproved”. The             American Genealogist 63, no. 4 (October 1988)

John Hanson (1721-1783), Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series)

            http://www.msa.md.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/000500/000587/html/587sources.html

Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1779

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjc.html

Hoffman, Ronald, “A Spirit of Dissension: Economics, Politics, and the Revolution in Maryland”, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973


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