Was John Hanson the Real First President of the United States?

Some biographers argue that Hanson technically predated Washington

Portrait of John Hanson, 1770
Portrait of John Hanson, 1770.

John Hesselius / Public Domain

John Hanson (April 14, 1721–November 15, 1783) was an American Revolutionary leader who served as a delegate to Second Continental Congress and, in 1781, was elected the first "President of the United States in Congress assembled.” For this reason, some biographers argue that John Hanson—rather than George Washington—was actually the first President of the United States.

Fast Facts: John Hanson

  • Known For: Elected President of the United States in Congress assembled in 1781
  • Born: April 14, 1721 in Charles County, Maryland
  • Parents: Samuel and Elizabeth (Storey) Hanson
  • Died: November 15, 1783 in Prince George's County, Maryland
  • Spouse: Jane Contee
  • Children: 8, including (known) Jane, Peter, and Alexander
  • Fun Fact: Established the observation of Thanksgiving Day in 1782

Early Life

John Hanson was born on his wealthy family’s “Mulberry Grove” plantation in Port Tobacco Parish in Charles County, Maryland, on April 14, 1721. His parents, Samuel and Elizabeth (Storey) Hanson, were well-known members of Maryland's social and political elite. Samuel Hanson was a successful planter, landowner, and politician who served two terms in the Maryland General Assembly.

While few details of Hanson’s early life are known, historians presume he was educated at home by private tutors as were most children of wealthy Colonial American families. Hanson then joined his father as a planter, slave owner, and public official.

Early Political Career

After serving as sheriff of Charles County for five years, Hanson was elected to the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly in 1757. An active and persuasive member, he was a major opponent of the Stamp Act of 1765 and chaired a special committee that coordinated Maryland’s participation in the Stamp Act Congress. In protest of the British-enacted Intolerable Acts, Hanson co-signed a resolution calling for a boycott of all British imports to the Colonies until the acts were repealed.

In 1769, Hanson resigned from the Maryland General Assembly to pursue business interests. After selling his Charles County land and plantation, he moved to Frederick County in western Maryland, where he held a variety of appointed and elected offices, including surveyor, sheriff, and treasurer.  

Hanson Goes to Congress

As relations with Great Britain went from bad to worse and the colonies traveled down the road to the American Revolution in 1774, Hanson became recognized as one of Maryland’s foremost Patriots. He personally orchestrated the passage of a resolution denouncing the Boston Port Act (which punished the people of Boston for the Boston Tea Party). As a delegate to the First Annapolis Convention in 1775, Hanson signed the Declaration of the Association of the Freemen of Maryland, which, while expressing a desire to reconcile with Great Britain, called for military resistance to British troops in place to enforce the Intolerable Acts.

Once the Revolution broke out, Hanson helped recruit and arm local soldiers. Under his leadership, Frederick County, Maryland sent the first troops from the Southern Colonies north to join General George Washington’s newly-formed Continental Army. Sometimes paying the local soldiers out of his own pocket, Hanson urged the Continental Congress to declare independence.

In 1777, Hanson was elected to his first of five one-year terms in the new Maryland House of Delegates, which named him as the state’s delegate to the Second Continental Congress in late 1779. On March 1, 1781, he signed the Articles of Confederation on the behalf of Maryland, the last state needed to ratify the Articles and bring it into full effect.

First President of the USA?

On November 5, 1781, the Continental Congress elected Hanson as “President of the United States in Congress assembled.” This title is also sometimes called "President of the Continental Congress." This election has led to the contention that Hanson, rather than George Washington, was the first President of the United States.

However, under the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. central government had no executive branch, and the position of president was largely ceremonial. Indeed, most of Hanson’s “presidential” duties consisted of dealing with official correspondence and signing documents. Finding the work so tedious, Hanson threatened to resign after just one week in office. After his colleagues in Congress appealed to his well-known sense of duty, Hanson agreed to continue to serve as president until the end of his one-year term on November 4, 1782.

Under the Articles of Confederation, presidents were elected to one-year terms. Hanson was neither the first person to serve as president or to be elected to the position under the Articles of Confederation. When the Articles went into full effect in March 1781, rather than elect a new president, Congress simply allowed Samuel Huntington of Connecticut to continue serving as president. On July 9, 1781, Congress elected Samuel Johnston of North Carolina as the first president after ratification of the Articles. When Johnston declined to serve, Congress elected Thomas McKean of Delaware. However, McKean served for less than four months, resigning in October 1781. It was not until the next session of Congress convened in November 1781, that Hanson was elected as the first president to serve a full term as president.

Hanson was responsible for establishing Thanksgiving Day. On October 11, 1782, he issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November as “a day of Solemn Thanksgiving to God for all His mercies…” and urging all Americans to celebrate progress in negotiations with Britain ending the Revolutionary War.

Later Life and Death

Already in poor health, Hanson retired from public service immediately after completing his one-year term as president of Congress in November 1792. He died just one year later at age 62, on November 15, 1783, while visiting his nephew Thomas Hawkins Hanson’s plantation in Prince George's County, Maryland. Hanson is buried in Fort Washington, Maryland, in the cemetery of the Saint John’s Episcopal Church.

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