President’s/Presidents’/Presidents Day?

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.

John Hanson (National Archives Identifier 518070)

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;…”

Articles of Confederation (National Archives Identifier 301687)

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).

8 thoughts on “President’s/Presidents’/Presidents Day?

  1. Many of us native Marylanders do think of John Hanson as the first President! Maryland chose John Hanson for one of our two statues in the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall. (The other is Charles Carroll of Carrollton- signer of the Declaration.)

  2. A researcher from overseas (can’t remember where) said to me a few years ago that in her U.S. history course, Washington is not taught as our first President. When she walked me through it, it made sense. It’s all in the perspective.

  3. To say that the Presidents Day holiday was created to honor of the birthday (February 22, 1752) of our first president, George Washington is only half correct. It is also to recognize and celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, whose birthday was February 12, 1809. For many years various states chose to celebrate one or the other of these birthdays as state holidays, and the federal government observed Washington’s birthday. This meant that some states actually observed two holidays in February. In 1968, Public Law 90-363 (see: created several three day weekends, by establishing Monday holidays to be on a specific day (determined by a formula) of the month in which they are observed, rather than on the anniversary of the date on which the event took place.

    In areas of the country that only celebrated Washington’s birthday before the relocation of the holiday from February 22, to the third Monday in February, President’s Day celebrates Washington’s Birthday. However, to residents of the states that had previously observed Lincoln’s Birthday, the third Monday of February now celebrates Lincoln’s birthday, as well. As the separate observation of Lincoln’s birthday, came under attack by the feds for all jurisdictions to have Uniform Holidays.

    Happy Holiday!

  4. What President made the presidentail discounts to happen in connection with Presidents day?

  5. As a native from Maryland – it has always been Maryland that has recognized Hanson as the first President of the United States of America. The original Encyclopedia’s have noted he was recognized as such. After all, his final signature on the first constitution of the United States of America gave birth to our nation.

  6. The archives own website says that the Articles of Confederation were in force on March 1, 1781. Making Samuel Huntington first President under the ratified articles of Confederation. Thomas McKean first elected president to serve. John Hanson first elected president to serve a full year term. So he is third president of Congress under the ratified Articles of Confederation and ninth president of Congress not the United States of America. A job that has nothing in common with the job under the Constitution other than the title.

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