Who was the first President of America? It has to be George Washington, right? The great Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and vanquisher of the British? Washington was certainly the first President of the United States of America under the United States Constitution. But America had a whole clutch of presidents before 1788.
In a similar vein to the frustrating exercise to locate America’s first capital city, identifying her first president depends to a large extent on your point of view. There are various contenders, including:
- Peyton Randolph
- John Hancock
- Samuel Huntington
- Thomas McKean
- John Hanson
- George Washington
A simple glance at the timeline of American history will help explain the complexities in pinpointing the first President of America. George Washington was the first President to be elected under the 1788 United States Constitution, assuming office on 30 April 1789.
But the road to that version of the United States winded through rebellion, war and various attempts at political union and nationhood. The first claim dates back to 1774, before the onset of the American Revolutionary War. The First Continental Congress convened on 5 September 1774 at Carpenters’ Hall in Pennsylvania with Peyton Randolph as the first President of the Continental Congress.
The twelve colonies were not at this point irrevocably separated from the British Crown. The First Continental Congress was followed by a Second Continental Congress, with Peyton Randolph again serving as president.
The fact that the colonies were still, well, colonies throughout Randolph’s presidency gives rise to John Hancock’s claim to be the first true president. Although a successor President of the Continental Congress to Randolph, Hancock was the President of the Continental Congress when the Declaration of Independence was signed and ratified.
Hancock therefore can plausibly claim to be the first president of an independent nation. The only problem with this is that no constitution for this nascent state existed. Although created as early as 15 November 1777 (during the presidency of Henry Laurens, but lets not complicate matters by pushing forward his claim), the constitution for the new nation was finally ratified on 1 March 1781.
Samuel Huntington was the President of the Continental Congress during ratification of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (the formal title for the constitutional document more commonly known as the Articles of Confederation) and so it was Huntington that was the first President of this new nation now formally constituted. Maybe.
Proponents of Thomas McKean would argue that he was the first president to be elected under the new Articles, rather than straddling them as his predecessor Huntington did. His claim is further bolstered by the fact that during his time in office, Lord Cornwallis’s British army surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the American War of Independence.
The most vocal claim for the honour of first president before George Washington came from supporters of John Hanson. He was the first President of the Continental Congress to be elected for an annual term as specified in the Articles of Confederation. This position was officially known as the “President of the United States of America in Congress Assembled.” Or President of the United States, as it was more commonly abbreviated. On this basis stands John Hanson’s claim to be both the first President of America and the first President of the United States.
Hanson was followed by seven more presidents, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Miffin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock (again), Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair and Cyrus Griffin. Of this group, only John Hancock can reasonably claim to have lived on in the nation’s collected conscious.
Whilst the exercise of determining America’s first president is an interesting way of picking apart the complex constitutional make up of the rebellious colonies from 1774 until 1788, it is in many ways a pointless task. George Washington was the first President of the United States as understood by Americans today. With his face on the dollar bill, carved into Mount Rushmore, commemorated in the name of the USA’s capital city and 42nd state, Washington is clearly number one.