By Alfie Paul
Presidents Day is celebrated in honor of the birthday of our first president, George Washington, who was born February 22nd. But what if he was not actually the first President of the nation? What if we celebrated this holiday in April instead? When all of the states ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781, they voted for the first President. John Hanson from Maryland was the first man to serve a full, one-year term as the elected President of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, thus making him (the third*) acting President of the United States. He was born on April 3, 1715.
Article IX from the Articles of Confederation states, “The United States in Congress assembled shall have authority to appoint a committee, to sit in the recess of Congress, to be denominated ‘A Committee of the States’, and to consist of one delegate from each State; and to appoint such other committees and civil officers as may be necessary for managing the general affairs of the United States under their direction — to 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;…”
As President of Congress, John Hanson was charged with presiding over the management of the general affairs of the United States for a short of about one year. More information about the office of the President under the Articles of Confederation can be found in the Letter Books of the Presidents of Congress, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Mckean, John Hanson, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, and Arthur St. Clair, 1781-1787 (National Archives Identifier 2050101).
Federalists such as John Jay also fulfilled the role of President of Congress, but the status of his presidency was unequal because the states were not unified under a charter such as the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution. The line of United States Presidents began with the office of the President of Continental Congress, whose occupants continued to serve as weak executives under the Articles until the ratification of the Constitution. Article II of the United States Constitution firmly established the executive branch of government and strengthened the role of the Presidency. To read Article II in its entirety and make the comparison, see Constitution of the United States (National Archives Identifier 1667751).
*Although John Hanson was the first elected to the position to serve a full 1-year term, two other individuals were elected President during or after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation: Samuel Huntington (1779) and Thomas McKean (1781).