Washington? Get in Line
He is the most heralded, perhaps most mythologized, figure in American history--revolutionary hero, inventive farmer, gifted statesman. But there's one thing George Washington may not have been: the first president of the United States.
"There's a lot of controversy over if he was really the first president," says Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University. "It turns out a lot of [accepted history] may be wrong." If that's the case, Washington's rank in the presidential pantheon would not be No.1, but a less-than-symbolic No. 11.
The debate, though, isn't so much about Washington as about how one defines the United States of America. Historians widely agree that our country was formed by the Constitution, drafted in 1787. But the first alliance of the 13 Colonies occurred years earlier, in 1781, under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. It's the latter half of that title that has some historians convinced that this contract, while ultimately a failure, created the country and, therefore, the American presidency.
Indeed, the document officially names this new collective "The United States of America." And when the Articles failed, the writers of the Constitution used them as a starting point when they expressed their desire "to form a more perfect union." Eighty years later, Abraham Lincoln specifically cited the "perpetual union" created by the Articles as justification for forcibly keeping the South from seceding. "The Articles of Confederation not only formed our nation," says Stanley Klos, author of President Who? Forgotten Founders, "it was used to preserve it."
Top 10. Still, the prevailing view among historians is that the Articles created only an alliance among 13 sovereign states--more like NATO than the U.S.A., says Richard Norton Smith, author of Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Delegates to the congress couldn't collect taxes, nor could they raise troops. The president of the congress, and by extension, the confederation, was elected only by his peers, received no salary, and had little formal power.
Nevertheless, under the Articles, 10 men held the position of president before Washington was inaugurated under the new Constitution in 1789, and they referred to themselves as such in official documents.
So who was first? Trivia buffs have long given that distinction to Maryland patriot John Hanson. In fact, it belongs to Samuel Huntington, who as president of the Continental Congress (the assembly that initiated the Revolution) inherited the job of president of the United States in Congress Assembled.
A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Huntington quit after only four months, partly because of work-related fatigue. Thomas McKean was elected to fill in until November, at which time the delegates chose Hanson, who became the first president to carry out a full term of one year. Among the seven who followed was John Hancock, of the famous signature. "They're the ones who held it together," says Klos, "even though our first government was a miserable failure."
As president, Huntington worked tirelessly to cement the alliance of states, helping persuade the French to donate the money and troops that helped win the war. Letters show that Huntington, Hancock, and others were intimately involved in orchestrating the Revolution. Thomas Mifflin, the fifth president under the Articles, signed the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the war.
Though these early leaders clearly held sway, the case can be made that the first commander in chief was the one who controlled the Continental Army. "Conveniently, that's George Washington," Whitney says. "He is the only one to have control over citizens of all 13 Colonies." And that, Whitney says, "is a de facto chief executive."
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.