We all know that George Washington was the first president of the United States, and served from 1789 to 1797. But we also know that the United States declared independence from Britain in 1776. So who was in charge for those 13 years between 1776 and 1789? The question is surprisingly controversial, and weirdly polarizing. Some maintain that America had no single "leader" during that time, and that Congress was simply supreme. Others dispute this analysis, and say no, there very clearly were people identifying themselves as "presidents" of the United States as early as 1774, even if they were not particularly powerful, and are not widely remembered today.
Let's take a look at these so-called "forgotten presidents."
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From 1774 to 1781 the highest authority of the American rebel forces was the Continental Congress of the United Colonies (later United States). Consisting of 56 delegates from 13 North American British colonies, it was an assembly founded to independently debate the colonies' relationship with the United Kingdom, and help coordinate the pursuit of their collective interests. The Congress' first meeting occurred on September 5, 1774 in Philadelphia. Two years later it would ratify the Declaration of Independence.
The chairman of the Continental Congress was called the "president," and his job was fairly similar to that of the modern-day Speaker of the House. He had no real powers other than to "preside," which is actually where the term "president" comes from. A different delegate was elected president each time the Congress met, so their terms were quite brief. A lot of them likewise resigned mid-term to pursue other jobs or appointments.
The following men served as President of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1781:
|#||NAME||STATE||TERM||TIME IN OFFICE||NOTES||CONGRESS|
|1||Peyton Randolph (1st time)||Virginia||September 5, 1774 - October 22, 1774||1 month, 17 d.||resigned||1st Continental Congress|
|2||Henry Middleton (acting)||South Carolina||October 22, 1774 - October 26, 1774||4 d.||interim|
|No one, Congress adjourned||October 26, 1774 - May 10, 1775||6 months, 14 d.|
|3||Peyton Randolph (2nd time)||Virginia||May 10, 1775 - May 24, 1775||14 d.||resigned||2nd Continental Congress|
|4||John Hancock||Massachusetts||May 24, 1775 - October 28, 1777||2 years, 5 months, 4 d.||resigned|
|5||Charles Thomson (acting)||Pennsylvania||October 29, 1777 - November 1, 1777||2 d.||interim|
|6||Henry Laurens||South Carolina||November 1, 1777 - December 9, 1778||1 year, 1 month, 1 d.|
|7||John Jay||New York||December 10, 1778 - September 28, 1779||9 months, 18 d.||resigned|
|8||Samuel Huntington||Connecticut||September 28, 1779 - March 2, 1781||1 year, 5 months, 4 d.|
|The Presidents of the United States Congress||March 2, 1781 —|
In 1775 it was decided that the Congress should also appoint a Commander-in-Chief, to command the United States armed forces. There was some talk of giving the president of Congress this job, but it was instead decided that the two positions should be separate.
There was only one Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and his term overlapped with the tenure of the Second Continental Congress and the government of the Articles of Confederation (see below). The man's name, of course, was:
|George Washington||Virginia||June 15, 1775 - December 23, 1783||8 years, 6 months, 8 d.|
After Washington resigned, the office of Commander-in-Chief was eliminated, and replaced with the less powerful position of Senior Officer of the Army, the precursor to the modern-day Chief of Staff of the Army. Until Washington became President of the United States in 1789, in the years following 1783 America did not have a single individual tasked with the duties of "Commander-in-Chief.".
The Articles of Confederation, passed by the Continental Congress in 1781, marked the first attempt to give the newly independent United States a firmly-defined, constitutional political structure. The 13 states did not yet fully consider themselves as a proper country, though, and the document merely defined the US as a "firm league of friendship " that would allow every member state to retain its "sovereignty, freedom, and independence."
The few powers the states were willing to give up were once again concentrated in the Congress, and again, the president was a weak figure tasked mostly with presiding. Article IX merely declared that the Congress would "appoint one of their members to preside, provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years," and assigned no other official duties to the office.
In practice, the presidents performed some minor ceremonial duties and often signed documents on behalf of the Congress as a whole. This did not imply he had any sort of final power of approval, however. The presidency of those days is perhaps best compared to the president of a social club or a chairman of a board of directors; someone who could occasionally represent, and speak for, the organization in a public, official capacity, but was not a very important or powerful figure in day-to-day decision making.
The Articles of Confederation were abolished in 1789, and a new constitution was introduced which created a strong, executive presidency (among other things). George Washington assumed office as the first full-fledged "President of the United States," a title that had only been used informally until then.
The following individuals held the office of president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation; they are usually called the "Presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled."
|#||NAME||STATE||TERM||TIME IN OFFICE||NOTES||CONGRESS|
|1||Samuel Huntington *||Connecticut||March 2, 1781 - July 10, 1781||4 months, 8 d.||resigned||1st|
|2||Thomas McKean *||Delaware||July 10, 1781 - November 4, 1781||3 months, 24 d.|
|3||John Hanson||Maryland||November 5, 1781 - November 3, 1782||11 months, 29 d.||full term||2nd|
|4||Elias Boudinot||New Jersey
||November 4, 1782 - November 2, 1783||11 months, 28 d.||full term||3rd|
|5||Thomas Mifflin||Pennsylvania||November 3, 1783 - October 31, 1784||11 months, 28 d.||full term||4th|
|No one, Congress adjourned||October 31, 1784 - November 30, 1784||1 month|
|6||Richard Henry Lee *||Virginia||November 30, 1784 - November 6, 1785||11 months, 6 d.||full term||5th|
|No one, Congress adjourned||November 6, 1785 - November 23, 1785||17 d.|
|7||John Hancock *||Massachusetts||November 23, 1785 - June 5, 1786||6 months, 12 d.||resigned||6th|
|8||Nathaniel Gorham||Massachusetts||June 5, 1786 - November 5, 1786||5 months|
|No one, Congress adjourned||November 5, 1786 - February 2, 1787||2 months, 27 d.|
|9||Arthur St. Clair||Pennsylvania||February 2, 1787 - November 4, 1787||9 months, 2 d.||resigned||7th|
|No one, Congress adjourned||November 4, 1787 - January 22, 1788||2 months, 18 d.|
|10||Cyrus Griffin||Virginia||January 22, 1788 - November 2, 1788||9 months, 10 d.||8th|
|No one, Congress adjourned||November 2, 1788 - April 30, 1789||5 months, 28 d.|
|The Presidents of the United States of America||April 30, 1789 —|
Though the presidency was very weak, the Articles of Confederation did allow for a 13-member "Committee of the States" to hold significant executive power. It was sort of a cabinet in the parliamentary style, and appointed a Secretary of Foreign Affairs and a Secretary of War. The occupants of those two offices were much more important and powerful individuals than the president of the Congress, and are probably more worthwhile to study if we're trying to determine who was truly "leading" the US at this time.
Like many bits of obscure trivia, there's been a tendency for people who are aware of the "pre-Washington presidents" to inflate the historical relevance of this information as a way of showing off. You'll sometimes hear fringe, wannabe historians make a big fuss about "the first ten presidents of the United States" and bemoan the fact that no one knows anything about them. There's a guy on the internet, for example, who sells commemorative coins of the Articles of Confederation presidents in an effort to "rehabilitate" their reputation (and no doubt strengthen his own).
This sort of stuff has, in turn, prompted a fair bit of pushback from those who revere the modern US presidency, and don't like seeing the office cheapened by introducing a bunch of new "presidents" who barely did anything important and served extremely short terms. Establishment historians thus tend to undermine the relevance of the presidents of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, and insist that George Washington is the only American president worth starting any lists with.
The most mature attitude is probably somewhere in the middle. It's important to understand that the United States did have an organized system of government between 1774 and 1789, and it's true that this phase of American history tends to be comparatively under-studied and under-analyzed. At the same time, however, it's wrong to assume that the early government of the United States was in any way structured similarly to the government America has today, and it's a very flawed analogy to compare the early presidents of the US Congress to the presidents under the post-1789 constitution. Not all presidents are created equal, no matter how similar their titles may have been.
Here are a few important facts worth remembering about the early presidents:
- The title "president" was chosen because it implied an overseer, rather than a ruler. America's desire to be a federal country made the Founders skeptical of more authoritative-sounding positions.
- Many of the presidents who served under the Articles of Confederation were also signers of the Declaration of Independence. They are marked with a * above. John Hancock's signature on the Declaration is the biggest because he was president of the Congress at the time of its passage.
- A few early presidents would go on to serve in other important positions of the US government following the conclusion of their presidential terms. John Jay (president of the Continental Congress, 1778-1779) served as the first Chief Justice of the United States, John Hancock (president twice, under both pre-1789 systems) served as Governor of Massachusetts, and Thomas McKean (president under the Articles, 1781) served as Governor of Pennsylvania. Most of the other presidents died before 1789.
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