WHO WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES?

I. Introduction
An elementary school level question and answer, or so it would seem.

George Washington, First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen, Father of His Country and First President of the United States is the automatic answer to the question. Elected unanimously in 1788, Washington took office in 1789, served two terms and retired in 1797 after eight distinguished years in office, legendarily retiring to his beloved Mt. Vernon.

But if Washington was the First President of the United States, then who was the Mr. President to whom Washington addressed his acceptance of the command of the Revolutionary Armies in 1776; and if Washington was the First President of the United States, then who was the Mr. President to whom Washington addressed his retirement speech retiring his command of the Armies of the United States in 1783?

The answer to this question is that the Continental Congress from 1774 until 1789 elected a leader, and that this leader was given the formal title, “President of the United States of America, in Congress Convened,” and from 1781 until 1789, the United States of America through the Continental Congress formally selected a “President of the United States of America, in Congress Convened,” for a one year annual term pursuant to the Articles of Confederation.
Fourteen individuals served sixteen terms of office as “President of the United States of America, in Congress Convened” before George Washington took office as President under the United States Constitution.

This is not to equate the office of President under the Continental Congress or under the Articles of Confederation with the far different office of President envisioned and created by the Constitution; nonetheless, prior to 1789 when Washington took office as the First Federal Constitutional President of the United States pursuant to the United States Constitution, there had served before him a number of well-known and famous men in the office which was known as “President of the United States, in Congress Convened,” but which Washington referred to simply as Mr. President in his letters.

II. Who was the First President of the United States? A Survey of the Presidents of the United States Before George Washington and Several Different Candidates for AFirst President of the United States

In his book The Critical Period in American History, historian Fiske terms the period between 1783 and 1789 “critical,” a phrase which is now famous in history books.

Setting aside for now the intent of the Founders or Framers of the Constitution, it remains an oddity in American History texts that the fourteen men who served this Country faithfully and well as Presidents of the United States in Congress Convened from 1774-1789 have not received their due by being listed as Presidents of the United States to be duly memorized by generations of students.

There isn’t an AP American History question about these men. There isn’t an SAT II American History question about these men.

In fact, it’s a pretty good bet that a student can major in American history at just about any university in the United States after getting high scores on the American History SAT II and a 5 on the American History AP, and maybe even get a master’s or Ph.D. in American History, without ever knowing the names of these men.

We needn’t even discuss the fact that it is more likely than not that the President of the United States and likely none of this Country’s leading Constitutional Scholars, or even a majority of the Supreme Court of the United States, can name more than a handful of these men.

So who where these men who led the Continental Congress and this country as revolutionary and confederate Presidents of the United States before George Washington was our first elected and inaugurated executive President under the federal Constitution of 1787.

A. Peyton Randolph of Virginia – First and Third President of the United States in Congress Convened First and Second Continental Congresses 1774 &; 1775 – First President of the United States?
Peyton Randolph of Virginia was the first President of the Continental Congress, in Congress Assembled, the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, and thus the first logical candidate to be termed First President of the United States. He served two terms, one as President of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, and a second term as President of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775. We all know Randolph by his more famous cousins…..Randolph was President and presiding officer of the First Continental Congress in 1774 when that body declared the colonies to be independent, declared and ratified a bill of rights, called upon the British to yield. Since he was President of the United States when the Continental Congress declared the Independence of the Colonies by formal resolution, the argument can be made that Randolph is, indeed, the First President of the United States.

B. Henry Middleton – Second President of the United States in Congress Convened – 1774 – First Continental Congress – Second President of the United States.

Henry Middleton of [PA/DE] served as President of the First Continental Congress after Randolph until the end of the session in 1774, and thus if Randolph was the first President of the United States, Middleton (whose descendants still live in Philadelphia, one of whom currently is a part-owner of the Phillies) can lay claim to being the Second President of the United States.

C. John Hancock – 1775 – 1777
Famous of course, for signing the Declaration of Independence. Just put your John Hancock right there, and you’ll have signed. Since he was President of the Continental Congress when the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, he is candidate #2 for being the first President of the United States.

D. Henry Laurens – 1777 – 1778
Not famous, but a really beautiful name, eh?

E. John Jay 1778 – 1779
Famous for serving as an Ambassador and as a Supreme Curt Justice.

F. Samuel Huntington 1779-1781
His namesake was professor of government at Harvard for many years. Technically, the first President of the United States, since the Articles of Confederation were adopted under his Presidency. So he’s candidate #3 after Peyton Randolph and John Hancock, for being the first President of the United States.

G. Thomas McKean 1781
Wasn’t President long enough to matter, but he’s on the list.

H. John Hanson 1781-1782
Hanson is the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, elected under the Articles of Confederation. Consequently, he is candidate #4, after Peyton Randolph, John Hancock & Samuel Huntington, for being the first President of the United States. There was a John Hanson who roomed with my younger brother at Harvard in the 1980s who was related to this John Hanson, same family.

I. Elias Boudinot 1782-1783
Second President under the Articles of Confederation.

J. Thomas Mifflin 1783-1784
Third President under the Articles of Confederation. Known as the man after whom Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River was named. Not so well known is that Mifflin was a former President of the United States of America.

K. Richard Henry Lee 1784-1785
Fourth President under the Articles of Confederation.

L. John Hancock 1785-1786
Fifth President under the Articles of Confederation, and as we see from the list, not only famous for signing his name, but also a two-time President of the United States. Some people are famous for the wrong reasons, and John Hancock is one of them. The reason, of course, that John Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence is now obvious—he was the President of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, at the time of the signing of the Declaration, on July 4, 1776. He was the President of the United States, and that’s why he signed first. So next time you want to win $50.00 on a bet from someone, ask them, “why did John Hancock sign the Declaration of Independence first” and don’t let them use a computer or a PDA, and you’ll win easily.

M. Arthur St. Clair 1787
Sixth President under the Articles of Confederation

N. Nathan Gorman 1787-1788
.Seventh President under the Articles of Confederation.

O. Cyrus Griffin 1788-1789
Eighth and last President under the Articles of Confederation.

Here’s the list of Presidents again:

President of the United Colonies
No Fixed Term
Peyton Randolph 1774
Henry Middleton 1774
Peyton Randolph 1775
John Hancock 1775-1777
Henry Laurens 1777-1778
John Jay 1778-1779
Samuel Huntington 1779-1781
Thomas McKean 1781

President of the United States of America – under the Articles of
Confederation

One Year Term
John Hanson
1781-1782
Elias Boudinot
1782-1783
Thomas Mifflin 1783-1784
Richard Henry Lee
1784-1785
John Hancock 1785-1786
Nathan Gorman 1786-1787
Arthur St. Clair 1787
Cyrus Griffin 1788-1789

Source: wikipedia (of course!)

Art Kyriazis Philly (it all happened here, by the way)
Home of the Declaration of Independence and the Continental Congress
Capital of the United States, 1774-1800 under fifteen different U.S. Presidents, various Continental Congresses, the Articles of Confederation Congress, & the 1st US Congress & Senate and Supreme Court and Constitutional Government.

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