Urban Legends and US History

Wednesday, November 09, 2005
How conversations progress is often a matter of wonder to me. Over dinner with friends last night conversation somehow arrived at mention of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes)Church, in Philadelphia.

Gloria Day is a wonderful little old church with roots nearly as far back into American history as any structure in the nation. Within Gloria Dei there is a plaque (one among many such interesting plaques) dedicated to John Hanson (and if I recall correctly he is buried on the grounds) who, according to myth, was the first President of the United States.

A dear friend with whom I share a fond, nearly fiendish, enjoyment of animatedly discussing matters of politics and history, mentioned that he'd first learned of John Hanson, and subsequently the little known "fact" that Hanson was the "First President of the United States of America", from one of his many visits to Gloria Dei. I cannot resist such provocations and responded that the notion that John Hanson was the first president of the United States is an urban legend - a myth. My friend wagered our next dinner together that he was correct. He owes my bride and me a dinner.

The facts of this matter are that John Hanson, a "founder" due our respect, was the third President of the Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation. John Hanson was the first to serve a full one-year term as President of the Congress Assembled but he was the third person elected to the position. Samuel Huntington was the first and served from March, 1781 until July, 1781 when he resigned due to ill health. Thomas McKeane was the second who served until November, 1781, when Hanson was elected.

If nothing else I win the wager on the technicality of first vs. third (the myth bears no qualifying "first to serve a full term"). But the post of President of the Congress Assembled was not at all an executive position presiding over the government of a nation known as the United States of America. The Articles (for brevity I'll only reproduce the short first three here) were:

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

I. The Stile of this Confederacy shall be "The United States of America".

II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.

The "president" was a matter barely mentioned in the Articles and merely presided over the "Congress Assembled" and, presumably, the "Committee of the States" which was a committee of the congress that sat while the congress itself was adjourned. The president, under the Articles, had no executive power with respect to the confederation of the states which each retained individual sovereignty. A useful analogy, perhaps, to the current structure of our government as defined by the constitution is the role of the vice president as the "president" of the Senate. The role of president of the congress assembled did take on some ceremonial functions (such as receiving foreign dignitaries) but had no power within the confederation. And the confederation itself was so weak that it soon required replacement by the constitution.

For anyone interested, further discussion of this urban legend regarding John Hanson can be found at Snopes, and Wikipedia. Standard encyclopedias don't carry a great deal of information about Hanson but do typically contain words similar to (or exactly matching): Hanson is sometimes referred to as the first President of the United States. His duties were, however, merely those of a presiding officer and bore no relation to the duties of the President under the Constitution.


Knucklehead said...

Just in case any history nuts actually drop by, the ten Presidents of Congress Assembled, as per the Articles of Confederation, were:

Samuel Huntington, 1st President of the United States in Congress Assembled, March 1, 1781 to July 6, 1781

Thomas McKean, 2nd President of the United States in Congress Assembled July 10, 1781 to November 5, 1781

John Hanson, 3rd President of the United States in Congress Assembled, November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782

Elias Boudinot, 4th President of the United States in Congress Assembled, November 4, 1782 to November 3, 1783

Thomas Mifflin, 5th President of the United States in Congress Assembled, November 3, 1783 to June 3, 1784

Richard Henry Lee, 6th President of the United States in Congress Assembled,

November 30, 1784 to November 23, 1785

John Hancock, 7th President of the United States in Congress Assembled, November 23, 1785 to June 6, 1786

Nathaniel Gorham, 8th President of the United States in Congress Assembled, June 1786 - November 13, 1786

Arthur St. Clair, 9th President of the United States in Congress Assembled, February 2, 1787 to October 29, 1787

Cyrus Griffin, 10th President of the United States in Congress Assembled, January 22, 1788 to March 4, 1789.

The presidents of the Continental Congress were:

John Hancock, July 2, 1776 to October 29, 1777;

Henry Laurens, November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778

John Jay, December 10, 1778 to September 28, 1779

Samuel Huntington, September 28, 1779 to February 28, 1781

the Presidents of Congress under the United Colonies of America’s Continental Congress were:

Peyton Randolph, September 5, 1774 to October 22, 1774 and May 20 to May 24, 1775

Henry Middleton, October 22, 1774 to October 26, 1774

John Hancock, October 27, 1775 to July 1, 1776

ambisinistral said...

Just in case any ... nuts actually drop by

Bah, this thread sounds like a sinster Anglo-Saxon plot to downgrade a Swede as America's first President. Racism I tell's ya, nothing but racism.

Knucklehead said...

You misunderestimate me, Ambi. It is a completely non-sinsister attempt to procure a quality meal at someone else's expense. I wear my motives on my sleeve (dropped the danged napkin) for all to see.

ambisinistral said...


Quality meal? Alas for you, now that I've played the racist card, the only way you'll be able to assauge your white male guilt is by dining at a smorgasbord.

Knucklehead said...


No problems. I'll just wait till it gets cold and start at the beginning (although I can't imagine what dope would use whiskey when any knucklehead knows it is aquavit or vodka that is called for.

truepeers said...

yeah, a convincing case, but what about hte other side? Why was your friend, or hte plaque layers, convinced otherwise? This ceremonial function you quickly brush over... COuld there be something more to it than you allow, and could it have evolved from the first to third president? A president should not be defined first of all by administrative powers, but in his being recognized as head of state (by other states and the peopel ruled), even of a highly decentralized state.

Just makin' trouble...

Knucklehead said...

My friend had simply bought in to the general outline of the case (which they label as "false") presented at the Snopes link.

To summarise, the case is essentially, as per Snopes, that

The new country was actually formed on March 1, 1781 with the adoption of The Articles of Confederation.

that prior to this the colonies only saw themselves as individual states rather than as "The United States of America". This can be dismissed by a simple look at the Declaration of Independence which immediately tells us it is "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America".

A nation, a country, was not brought into existence by the Declaration nor by the Articles. It required the Constitution to pull that off.

A further key claim of the myth is, again quoting Snopes (which uses the very words of the myth makers themselves) is:

Once the signing took place in 1781, a President was needed to run the country. John Hanson was chosen unanimously by Congress (which included George Washington).

This is clearly incorrect. Huntington was selected immediately upon the signing of the Articles. He was a straightforward selection to continue in a role very similar to the one he held at that time as president of the Continental Congress which drafted the Articles.

It is further claimed that

As the first President, Hanson had quite the shoes to fill. No one had ever been President and the role was poorly defined.

within which virtually nothing is true. Hanson was not the first such "president of the congress", and the role, while perhaps poorly defined, was well understood. There'd been no less than seven previous presidents of the various "congresses" with Huntington as the transitional holder of the office from Continental Congress to "United States in Congress Assembled".

The "ceremonial role", which you rightly point out that I brushed over, was somewhat analagous to the role of Secretary of State that we have today. He represented the "United States in Congress Assembled" when dealing with foreign representatives.

My friend, as I so generously pointed out to him, was merely taken in by an urban legend, urban legends being "bullshit spouted by dickheads and believed by bozos". (He may buy the dinner but I suspect I'm on the hook for the adult beverages.) ;)

truepeers said...

Just curious, but was that Samuel Huntington any relation to Mr. Clash of Civilizations?

Knucklehead said...

Not to my knowledge, TP, but it is possible.

vnjagvet said...

A few cool things about Gloria Dei, now also known as Old Swede's Church:

Is the oldest church in Pennsylvania, established in 1700 after its predecessors were established in 1646 nearby.

While a Lutheran Church, was the first multi-racial church in what would become the US when its pastor baptised 20 Africans before 1769.

Became an Episcopalian Church in the early 1800s which it is now.

Still stands where it was built in 1700.

Knucklehead said...


A few cool things about Gloria Dei...

Just in case you drop by this thread again...

I presume you have visited "Old Swedes' Church". It is "cool" in and of itself. Very cool. Kewl, in fact.

For those who think about someday visiting Philadelphia to take in its historic significance to the United States you must - M-U-S-T - make room in your itinerary for Gloria Die Church. Leave enough time to wander the small grounds. In the case of Gloria Die, small is huge, old is cool, and history is a wonder one must make an attempt to feel.

There is something sacred about old churces. Gloria Die makes it obvious.