The Many U.S. Presidents Before George Washington

Today I found out about the presidents before the U.S. Constitution went into effect.

Schools in the United States teach children from an early age that the first president of the United States was George Washington. But teachers often forget to mention a small, kind of important detail- George Washington was the first U.S. president under the current United States Constitution, but he wasn’t the country’s first president.

Before the U.S. Constitution came into being, the Articles of Confederation served as the glue which held all thirteen states together as a single country. (See: The Articles of Confederation: The Constitution Before the Constitution) The Articles went into effect in 1781, and they established a loose alliance among the states. The Articles also defined the role of Congress to oversee the national needs, as well as the office of the president.

Due to the fear of giving too much power to one person, the office of president was extremely limited in power and scope, and was not even a paid position.  Rather, the primary roles of the president at this time were simply to preside over meetings and handle various state correspondence. The president was also the one who signed official congressional documents.

So who were these individuals who served such a lackluster position as the office of president?

John_HansonThe first president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation was John Hanson from Maryland. His term began in 1781 and ended in 1782. He at first attempted to resign directly after being elected (with so little power given to the office and no pay to boot, few wanted the position over political offices in their home states). However, ultimately a quorum could not be reached to name a successor, so he decided to stay on as president. Being the country’s first full-term president under the Articles of Confederation meant that he oversaw programs that helped to establish daily life in the new country. For instance, Hanson held the position of president when the government started on the road to creating what would become the U.S. Post Office and the National Bank. The government also established a single, uniform currency throughout the states under his mostly powerless watch.

Elias_BoudinotElias Boudinot of New Jersey became the second president, serving from 1782 until 1783. His presidency coincided with the official end to the American Revolutionary War. Boudinot presided over the country when the Treaty of Paris was signed in Paris on September 3, 1783. However, the Treaty of Paris did more than simply end the war; it required that the United States be recognized as an independent country and no longer a part of the British Empire. Besides being president, Boudinot was also noteworthy for his era for advocating for the rights of both Native Americans and black people, as well as directly sponsoring various youth among these groups so that they could receive an education.

Thomas_MifflinThomas Mifflin became the president for the term of 1783 until 1784. He oversaw the ratification of the Treaty of Paris during his presidency. Originally from Pennsylvania, he served under General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. That former position, and Washington’s later significance as the first president under the U.S. Constitution, made it somewhat ironic that president Mifflin accepted George Washington’s resignation as Commander in Chief.

Richard-Henry-LeeRichard Henry Lee of Virginia served as the country’s fourth president from 1784 until 1785. His presidency might have been pretty uneventful, but his political career afterwards was not. He became a vocal opponent of the now current U.S. Constitution out of the fear that it would create a centralized government too similar to the government that the colonies lived under as British citizens. He also hesitated because the document lacked a Bill of Rights, though many of his later suggestions were incorporated into the United States Bill of Rights.

John-HancockJohn Hancock, most famous for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence, held the position of the president from 1785 to 1786. His life in politics began long before the presidency, and he even helped to fund the American effort during the Revolutionary War. His life in politics continued after his tenure as president under the Articles of Confederation. He was reelected as Governor of Massachusetts—a position he resigned due to health before becoming president—and even ran against George Washington in the first U.S. presidential election under the Constitution. He did not expect to win, but had hoped to finish second so that he could become vice president. Ultimately that post went to John Adams.

Nathaniel_GorhamNathaniel Gorham, also from Massachusetts, served as the president under the Articles of Confederation from 1786 until 1787. Like many other presidents during the time, his presidency was simply another item on his long list of political accomplishments. He began his career as a public notary who quickly won election to the colonial legislature during the Revolutionary War. He served as a member of the legislature, became a judge even though he lacked legal training, and even attended the Constitutional Convention where he supported the new U.S. Constitution.  As for Gorham’s family, his sister was the wife of John Leighton, an ancestor of the second wife of Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt.

Arthur-St.-ClaireThe seventh president of the United States was a man from Ohio named Arthur St. Clair. He held the position between 1787 and 1788. He left Congress after finishing his term. He then received the appointment to governor of the Northwest Territory, a position where he often faced off with the Native Americans who claimed they, in fact, owned the land. Despite once being enormously wealthy, St. Clair ultimately died poor, with much of his wealth used to support the American Revolution and young government. Late in life, he gave away the little money that remained of his once vast fortune.

Cyrus-GriffinCyrus Griffin of Virginia had a background in law before he became the eighth and final president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. He helped to put the country’s new judicial system on the path to becoming what we know today as the modern American court system during his work at the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture. He continued to contribute to the new country’s court system after his presidency when he went on to become a judge with the District Court of Virginia.

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Bonus Facts:

  • There were also presidents before the presidents under the ratified Articles of Confederation.  These were Peyton Randolph, who served from 1774-1775 before taking a leave due to poor health; Henry Middleton, who served in Randolph’s absence; John Hancock, who served for two years at this point (and would later serve again, as noted above); Henry Laurens who ultimately resigned over a controversy concerning diplomat Silas Deane; John Jay, who also served as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court at the same time he held the office of president; Samuel Huntington, who ultimately resigned due to health problems (including smallpox), but has the distinction of being the president when the Articles of Confederation were finally ratified; Samuel Johnston, who refused the office of the president when elected; and Thomas McKean, who ultimately resigned after the British surrender at Yorktown. McKean is notable as being the first president elected after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, but is generally not considered the first president due to failing to serve a full year term as specified under the Articles of Confederation. (McKean only served for three months.) A few weeks after his resignation, in November of 1781, Congress met as specified in the Articles of Confederation (“the first Monday in November”), with John Hanson being elected president.
  • John Hanson’s grandfather paid his way to America from England by becoming an indentured servant in the mid-17th century. By Hanson’s time, the family had rose significantly in wealth, allowing Hanson to help fund the revolution both via general fundraising and often paying soldiers out of his own pocket.
  • The three branches of the American government that we know today—the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Branches—came about with the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, only the legislative branch existed.
  • Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress couldn’t tax the states. It needed to ask them for money to run the government.  Needless to say, the government under the Articles was more than a little cash-strapped.  See: A Brief History of Taxes in the United States and Why They’re Due on April 15th
  • The Articles allowed members of Congress to have freedom of speech and guaranteed they would not be arrested if they committed certain petty crimes.
  • Confederate General Robert E. Lee was a descendent of the fourth president, Richard Henry Lee.
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  • A historian

    These men did have the title of “president”, but the word meant things very different back then. They were nothing more than the “presiding office”. It was a clerical position. The clerks of congress have more influence today than they had in their president capacity. That had influence, but was because of their personal influence and was in spite of the office, but because of it.

    • George

      Still would’ve been nice to know that this happened in history, and that these gentlemen existed in the forming of our nation… Instead of being left out in history class, to be forever forgotten… I feel that something sinister behind the omission

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  • Precious

    John Hanson was a moor ( African man) not European.

  • These men were not “Presidents of the United States.” The Articles of Confederation did not have an executive office, they were president of the Congress. George Washington was the 1st President of the United States beginning in 1789-1797, an office specifically created by the Constitution. The founding fathers were fearful of a strong executive, like King George III, developing during the Revolutionary War and therefore did not create a person who would have the power that Washington was eventually given in Article II.

  • Marc Curcio

    It seems folks have some strong feeling on this subject. Suffice to say, there were Presidents before George Washington. Historical fact, and good trivia question. Just like “who designed the first flag?”, it’s really unknown!

  • Jenny

    So many lies like all the fake mass shootings, challenger astro-nots still alive and all the masonic presidents we’ve had since Washington. Since they’ve passed H.R.5736 bill, 99% out what’s on TV now is propaganda. They’re pushing hard against the growing flat earth movement fearing an end to the 500 yr old, 1000 mph spinning ball lie.

    • Casey Jones

      I love you. Thanks for making me laugh.

    • Sue

      How do you explain the astronauts who have seen this “spinning ball lie”? How would hiding a flat earth possibly benefit anyone?

      • Tommy

        The government is trying to indoctrinate us in believing in a spinning ball because there is a plan on a staged UFO invasion. If you believe in a galaxy, universe and planets it is easy to deceive the mass.

        • Jeff Hast

          Wake up. All things in nature take on a round appearance because of the nature of spinning infinity.
          Every system you can think of from a atom to our univers is a round spinning system. And yes. So is the earth.
          I sailed around the worldm yoy just head west.
          How did I get back to where I started.
          The star systems change as you change latitudes. All that would not be as it us if this totally stupid flat earth nonsense were true.
          Yes there is a conspiracy to dumb us down. Yes the bankers rule us.
          But learn some phisics on atomic structure and the tetrahedron.
          We are all whipping through space at relativistic speeds. May the sun god bless you.

        • David Clark

          Didn’t you hear? The X-Files got cancelled. Sorry.

    • Misty

      Jenny, do you wear an aluminum hat 24/7/365?

    • Makeety Makondo

      LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Thanks, havent laughed like that in a while.

    • David Clark

      Jenny, do the rest of us a favour and get some treatment, fer Chrissakes.

  • Whit

    The treaty of Paris never mentiond “The United States”, but instead each of the individual 13 colonies were said to be independent soveriegn nations. The US did not start as a single country, and neither constitution made it a singular nation state. It was a confederacy of nations that morphed into a singular nation state overtime.

  • Susan

    If only the presidency returned to the clerical function it was under the Articles ! Then the money would be out of the position, and we’d have men who would really serve, not the pompous asses we’ve called president the last several terms.

    • Jess

      Lol, my husband says the same thing. It’s technically not supposed to be a paid position. Like taxes are actually illegal. It was temporarily imposed and then someone just left it there. Makes you wonder.

  • Bey

    FYI the first 8 presidents were Moors what europeans like to refer to as black people which black is not a race nor nationality and the etymology of black actually means PALE lacking color well Melanin so why all these pictures of caucasians? Which now that we know some facts maybe some europeans will stop claiming to be American and usurping our rights and land as it is very evident you all came from the Caucas Mountains/Europe so why are you all protesting for the true indigenous people to go back home when our home is here North South and Central America as well as adjoining Islands lets stop white sugar coating lies and tell the whole truth

  • Dee Money

    John Hanson (as with every other person listed above) was the President of Congress, not President of the US. The articles of Confederation had no designated executive position, and as such no person was president of the US under the Articles.

    Sorry to burst the bubble, but the first president of the US remains George Washington.