I meant for this post to be a “listicle” on Presidential trivia, like how George Washington wasn’t really America’s first President, how badass Teddy Roosevelt was, how William Henry Harrison was America’s shortest-serving President, etc. But then my friend Tony got really into his research and found out some amazing stuff about America’s truly first Presidents.
It’s true that George Washington was the first President of the United States. But if we consider America’s “birthday” to be when the Declaration of Independence was adopted – July 4, 1776, then America actually had several Presidents before Washington.
Presidents before Independence
In fact America had Presidents even before the Declaration of Independence. In 1774 delegates from all the American colonies (except Georgia) met in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia to decide what response the American Colonies ought to take to the punitive acts – officially the Coercive Acts, but popularly called the “Intolerable Acts” – passed by the British Parliament against us as punishment for daring to protest unjust taxation (see the Boston Tea Party).
–And by the way, forget the “tea tax,” what got us ticked off then was the 1765 Stamp Act, essentially a tax on paper – everything that used paper, from legal documents to newspapers to playing cards and even dice. This put an extra tax on any sort of commerce – any transfer or exchange of money, public or private, even gambling – carried out in the Colonies; an extra cost that hurt American businesses in favor of British competitors!
The President of that First Continental Congress – and thus America’s First President – was Peyton Randolph, taking office on Sep. 5, 1774. When he had to take off the last few days of the session due to ill health, Henry Middleton became America’s second President – for all of 4 days (Oct. 22, 1774 – Oct 26, 1774)!
When the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775 after it became clear that any legal appeals to the British Crown would be ignored, Randolph was the first President of that as well – making him the first and third American President. He would serve from May 10 to May 24, 1775, after which he resigned to preside over Virginia’s House of Burgesses (legislature).
The next President after Randolph would be John Hancock. That John Hancock. He would serve the longest – from May 24, 1775 to October 31, 1777 – and entire books have been written on what happened in America during his terms.
John Hancock would be followed by Henry Laurens (Nov. 1, 1777 – Dec. 9, 1778) and John Jay (Dec. 10, 1778 – Sep. 28, 1779). When John Jay left office to serve as Minister (ambassador) to Spain, Samuel Huntington was elected (Sep. 28, 1779). He was the last President to serve prior to America’s first official government under the Articles of Confederation. He would leave office due to ill health July 10, 1781.
Under the Articles of Confederation
Samuel Johnston was the first President elected under the newly ratified Articles of Confederation – July 9, 1781 – but turned down the office due to family matters. Instead, on July 10 Thomas McKean would become the first President to serve under the Articles of Confederation but he would serve only about four months, resigning from office on October 23, 1781 after getting the news of the British surrender at Yorktown. His successor, John Hanson was elected November 5 and would be the first President to serve a full term under the Articles – all of one year.
The next six Presidents under the Articles of Confederation would be:
- Elias Budinot (Nov. 4, 1782 – Nov, 3, 1783)
- Thomas Miffin (Nov. 3, 1783 – June 3, 1784)– in the seven months he served, his most important duty would be to accept General George Washington’s resignation of his commission;
- Richard Henry Lee (Nov. 30, 1784 – Nov. 4, 1785)
- John Hancock – returned to serve from November 23, 1875 to June 5, 1786, but due to health issues never attended a meeting of the Congress. When he finally resigned it would be months before enough Congressmen showed up to elect his successor;
- Nathaniel Gorham (Jun. 6, 1786 – Nov. 3, 1786) – after he left office there wouldn’t be another President for another four months – not enough members showed up to elect anybody.
- Gen. Arthur St. Clair (Feb. 2, 1787 – Nov. 4, 1787) – The most important thing that happened in his term was that Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance and elected St. Clair as the Northwest Territory’s first Governor.
- Cyrus Griffin – The last President under the Articles of Confederation, he was elected January 22, 1788 – and quit on November 15 when only 2 members of Congress showed up for work that day. Fortunately, by then the new United States Constitution had been ratified, and on April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the newly reconstituted government.
So you see, by the time George Washington took office, America had already had no less than fourteen Presidents. And there were some times America had no president at all—because at that time Presidents were elected by the Continental Congress, and if not enough people showed up – what is called a quorum – no President can be elected!
Tony got much of his research from Wikipedia; but we both recommend you use that only as a start to looking up further information on your own. There’s a lot of American history most people don’t learn much about in school – real history, not conspiracy theory stuff – and I think you’d be surprised and amazed by what you’ll find!
All that said, happy President’s Day!