Monday, April 13, 2009

April 14: The First President

Do you know who this is?
-He was the first chief executive under the ratified Articles of Confederation.
-Controversy and myths surround him today.
-An eighteen-year-old son was killed at Fort Washington in 1776

He was a merchant, a planter, a supporter of the Revolution, a one-term President under the Articles of Confederation, and is surrounded with controversy in our time with questions such as ‘was he the first President of the United States’ and ‘was he our first Black president’? Myths, many originating in the late 19th century, surround this founding father of the United States.

John Hanson was born on April 14, 1721, to Samuel and Elizabeth Story Hanson, in Port Tobacco Parish, Charles County, Maryland. His grandfather, John Hanson, had come to the colony as an indentured servant. His father was a planter who owned more than 1000 acres and who held a variety of political posts including two terms in the Maryland General Assembly. Two of the many controversies surrounding his life are that he was a descendent of Swedish royalty; the other is that he was of Moorish descent, both of which have been shown to be unfounded.

John did not have any formal education while growing up, though he read widely in both English and Latin classics through a self-guided program. As he reached adulthood he followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a planter himself. He would marry Jane Contee in 1744 and together they would have nine children – four daughters and five sons. One of his sons, serving in the Continental Army, died at Fort Washington in 1776. She would survive John, passing away in 1812.

His public service career began in 1750, when he was thirty-five. He was appointed sheriff of Charles County, Maryland. He would be elected to the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly, serving there from 1757 to 1773.

In 1769 he sold his Charles County property and moved to Frederick County in western Maryland in a move designed to improve his business interests. He would eventually become one of the leading patriots of the county and of Maryland as conditions began to grow more difficult between the colonies and England. He had taken a stand against a succession of taxes levied by the Crown, declaring them to be illegal and passed without due representation of colonial interests. Before moving to Frederick County he had stood against the Stamp Act, then the Townsend Acts. In 1774 he served as a delegate to the Annapolis Convention, which served as an extra-legal state government for Maryland – and in 1775 signed the Declaration of the Association of the Freemen of Maryland which approved the:
“opposition by Arms to the British troops, employed to enforce obedience to the late acts and statutes of the British parliament, for raising a revenue in America, and altering and changing the charter and constitution of the Massachusetts Bay, and for destroying the essential securities for the lives, liberties and properties of the subjects in the united colonies. And we do unite and associate, as one band, and firmly and solemnly engage and pledge ourselves to each other, and to America, that we will to the utmost of our power, promote and support the present opposition, carrying on, as well by Arms, as by the continental association, restraining our commerce.”
Armed rebellion had been legitimized. John would be active in recruiting, arming, and providing for Maryland troops, as well as a number of significant local and state committees.

He would be elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1777 for five consecutive annual terms, and in 1779 was named as a delegate from Maryland to the Second Continental Congress, serving until 1782. While he was a member of this Congress the Articles of Confederation were ratified, and in November 1781 he was elected to a one-year term as the first president under the ratified Articles. This led to his being claimed by later generations as the real first president of the United States.

However, the position of chief executive under the Articles was largely one of ceremonial duties, though he would have to deal with official correspondence and was responsible for signing official documents. The chief executive, however, did not have near the authority and power that would be given to that office under the new Constitution written in 1787.

John, at the age 67, retired from public office after his one-year term as President of Congress. In poor health, he died a year later - at the age of 68 - at his nephew's plantation Oxon Hill Manor in Prince George's County, Maryland, on November 22, 1783. There is some controversy as to where he was buried, and the grave site is lost.
John Hanson made many important and valuable contributions to our political history during the 1770s through the early 1780s. His service to his state is undeniable. However, controversy does still follow his life and accomplishments some two and a quarter centuries after his death – controversy he didn’t start, and very likely wouldn’t approve of. Few of the founding fathers have as much mythology surrounding their life as does John Hanson.

No biographies of John Hanson are available at our local library


Architect of the Capital
Articles of Confederation
Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
Famous Americans Biography
The Real First President


Hanson.01. Portrait: Famous Americans
Hanson.02. Portrait: Wikipedia
Hanson.03. Jane Contee Portrait: Ancestral Records and Portraits
Hanson.04. Statue by Richard E. Brooks located in U.S. Capital building


  1. Catching up a little on my favorite blogs. I must admit I had never heard of John Hanson but happy to be educated by this. Very interesting post Mike, thank you.

  2. Thank you for the comment, David. I had known generally about Hanson, but I certainly learned more as I researched and wrote about him. It strikes me as interesting that most of the offices he held at the national level were one-year-terms.