A Definitive Swipe at the John Hanson Myth

Here’s what this month’s Smithsonian magazine had to say in their “Ask Smithsonian” section about this tiresome myth, one that is vigorously promoted by the descendants of John Hanson. (For details, see Myth #88)

Q: John Hanson was the president of the Confederation Congress before George Washington was elected. Why isn’t Hanson considered the father of our country?

A: There was a substantial difference between the office John Hanson held starting in 1781 and the office George Washington was elected to in 1789. Under the Articles of Confederation, state delegates met to create and enact policies. When its members chose a “president,” they were choosing someone to moderate their debates and oversee some of their correspondence. Hanson’s role did not matter much to the average American. Compare that with Washington’s role, which was an executive position, set apart from the legislative branch by the U.S. Constitution. Washington had a significant sphere of influence. He was also the ceremonial head of state, symbolizing the unity and power of the nation. Washington, of course, had already been revered as a great leader of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Hanson held a leadership role in the Confederation Congress, but he did not lead the people of the nation. –Barbara Clark Smith, Curator of Social History, National Museum of American History

10 Responses to A Definitive Swipe at the John Hanson Myth

  1. JJ Cummings says:

    The argument is the opposite from definitive if you apply the same argument to George Washington to a President of today. Washington once said, his position has yet to be defined. Washington’s Presidency has experienced well over a couple hundred significant changes during his term and over the years with each Presidential term and with each amendment- the second amendment prevented a President from quartering troops into private homes. Roosevelt changed the Office in a major way in the 1930’s. Only John Hanson’s position as the first President into the first office (Article 9), into the first full term as the President of the United States of America, was legitimized by the final Battle of Yorktown along with the first Presidential order for General Washington to exchange prisoners to wrap things up. The better argument is what this position as President was intended to be in comparison to what it has evolved to today. Only the first constitution is the nations birth certificate and the only document to officially give the nation its official name in article one. Only the first constitution has a direct attachment to the Declaration of Independence in the spirit of its drafting. Much more definitive, the great seal used to represent the President of the United States by John Hanson was the very same great seal used by George Washington to represent the very same position. Even George Washington’s order of the Purple Heart in 1782 was an honor directly from the President of the United States- at this time of the ratification of the Purple Heart – current President was John Hanson. The removal of President John Hanson would be a disservice to its earliest recipients.

    • John C. Simpson says:

      Not really because whatever delegation from Congress or trappings have been added over the years, George Washington, like the current officeholder was the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (Hanson wasn’t). They both appointed Federal judges upon the advice and consent of the Senate. Among other authorities in Article II.

      But anyway, the problem with your ill-founded Yorktown argument is you’re ignoring that such orders were written and approved by Congress NOT whoever happened to be President.

      Note this final paragraph from the 16 September 1781 Yorktown Resolution approved by Congress and sealed and signed by Hanson:
      “In testimony whereof we have caused these our letters to be made patent, and the great seal of the United States of America to be thereunto affixed. Witness his Excellency John Hanson, President of the United States in Congress assembled, the 16th day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-two, and of our sovereignty and independence the seventh.” Again, this notional “President” is acting more as a notary than a Chief Executive. And that was indeed a Resolution from Congress and NOT a “Presidential Order”. But you knew that.

      • JJ Cummings says:

        Yes, many Presidents had differences in power and especially throughout the years with those powers that were changed and limited by amendments and bills. Obviously, all the powers were within the President and congress under the first. You can easily argue that Washington was greatly limited when the government power was divided by checks and balances in the three branches of government. Congress or the Supreme Court could almost immediately end a power of the President. They could end an order and the power to declare war. Like I said, the question was never over the many changes of power or the limits of power throughout the years when the United States of America and its government went into its first legal operation with its first full terms. The question is what the First President of the United States of America was intended to be and who was that first President under the continued government of the United States of America.

    • There is no question. George Washington was the first President of the United States. John Hanson was in no way “presiding” over the executive Branch of the government and his office and that of “Commander-in-Chief” were occupied by two different men. Unfortunately you argued from a false assumption, that John Hanson had issued “orders” to Washington relating to the surrender at Yorktown when in fact he did no such thing. He merely signed the letter that had been composed by Congress as a body and he signed it as the presiding officer. Or, as I said, your President Hanson functioned more as a notary than a Constitutional Article II Chief Executive and Head of State. You also did it again with your falsehood about what we now call the Purple Heart. It was established in a General Order under his authority as Commander in Chief and NOT having anything to do with John Hanson. In fact, if you actually read the G.O. from Washington’s HQ there is no reference to “President Hanson” so I fail to get your point. If you click on my name it’ll link to a page with the text establishing the order.

  2. Curtis Starr Cook says:

    Hanson being considered the first president today is based on a coincidence of terms back then.

    Hanson presided over Congress, just as Hancock had presided over the second Continental Congress, Randolph and Middleton had presided over the first, and the vice president (under our current constitution) presides over the Senate. None of these offices is in any way comparable to the office of the president under our constitution as they are all legislative as opposed to executive DESPITE the coincidence in terms.

    And even the terms weren’t identical. Hanson was “President of the United States in Congress Assembled”, which pretty definitively expresses his function as head of the legislature, while Washington was “President of the United States of America”, in whom “The executive Power shall be vested…” (opening line of Article II).

  3. JJ Cummings says:

    I fully understand the varying roles of the President and how it has changed thousands of times throughout the years, but we cannot determine the position by thousands of particulars. In a court, the decision is naturally determined by intent. If someone entered your home to kill and rob you, and you shot that person, did you commit murder? No. Why, it was not your intent to kill that person. As with our position as President, the question is what our first President was intended to be, If not, we will endlessly look to the many changes in those particulars in addition to the degree of Office and Executive duties. After 100 years, the first Constitution was able to radically change the position held by President Hanson to a greater degree of what Washington held. Washington concurred, “My position has yet to be defined.” The first constitution under our “same continuing government” could make those many particular changes under a full ratification. Particulars like a first order is not a determination. After all, John Hanson signed as President in a direct order, Washington’s first order to the Treasury was written more like a question with “convenience” and signed Your Most Humble Servant – Not President. If we have a Convention of States and radically change what was once Washingtons position and elect a new President with different duties, then we might see the false claim that now we have a new first President. Only President John Hanson is officially the first President of the United States of America and what that position and government was intended to be.

    • Curtis Starr Cook says:

      The intent was that Hansen was the President of Congress, not of the United States. That’s as clear as anything that ever was, so by your own definition, Hansen was not the first President of the United States, or of the Congress. First President of your imagination? I’ll grant you that.

      • JJ Cummings says:

        If you could get the spelling of his name correct would be a start before considering childish snips. First time hearing about Hanson or Hansen?

      • Curtis Starr Cook says:

        Your point about spelling is fair.

        Although, since you know I’ve already commented above and years ago in the original thread, you’re providing your own share of childish snips.

        At this point we’re both down to repeating ourselves, so I’ll bow out.

      • JJ Cummings says:

        What I am saying, by your misspelling of Hanson, you exposed yourself for a failure to research him sufficiently to where you would not forget that spelling and have an understanding to who he is.

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