Quick! Who was the first president of the United States?
If you said “George Washington,” go the end of the line. He was the 12th – 15th if you count the first three presidents of the Continental Congress of 13 colonies.
Presidents of the Continental Congress were Peyton Randolph, Henry Middleton and John Hancock, but the colonies were under nominal control of King George III. The Declaration of Independence of July 2, 1776 (public announcement July 4) speaks of “These United Colonies.”
Shortly after the Declaration, Congress passed Articles of Confederation under which they waged a successful revolution against Britain.
During this difficult period, four patriots served as “president.” John Hancock – the third Continental Congress president — became the first Confederation president. Following him were Henry Laurens, John Jay, and Samuel Huntington.
However, the Confederation was not ratified by all 13 states until March l, 1781, at which time the Continental Congress ceased to exist. Huntington continued as Confederation president until he resigned in July 1781 thus, technically, he was the first president of the United States.
Thomas McKean of Delaware was elected “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” in July 1781. Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the United Confederate States Oct. 19, 1781.
Thereafter, the Confederacy presidents in Congress Assembled were John Hanson, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock, Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin.
The loose confederation of autonomous states were unable to pay the bills incurred during the Revolution and squabbled over taxes and inter-state tariffs. A “federal” constitution welding the disparate states into a nation was adopted Sept 17, 1787.
George Washington was elected President of the United States under our present Constitution by a vote of citizens in 1789. He served two terms but refused another. The Constitution was ratified with a Bill of Rights on Dec. 15, 1791.
Several early presidents are particularly noteworthy. Leading the list might be John Hancock. He was president three times – Continental Congress, Confederation and Congress Assembled.
Though wealthy, be was a populist who believed strongly in the ability of the common man. He supported the Boston Tea Party and decried the Boston Massacre.
He is best remembered as the first signer – in bold letters — of the Declaration of Independence.
The Crown had delivered a decree from England in early 1776 offering a large reward for Hancock’s capture. Nevertheless, he announced as he affixed his signature: “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward!”
Strangely the Declaration Broadside presented to King George III contained only the names of President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson. Names of the other signers were not published until 1777.
It is certain that if the Americans had lost the ensuing war, Knox and Thomson would have lost their heads.
Samuel Huntington was a self-taught attorney in Connecticut – as were most colonial jurists – and a member of the Superior Court. He was elected to the General Assembly and a member of the revolutionary Council of Safety.
He joined the Sons of Liberty in opposition to the Stamp Act. Passage of the Coercive Acts in 1774 — in retaliation to the Boston Tea Party — led Huntington into active opposition to the Crown.
Huntington signed the Declaration of Independence and in 1779 was elected president of the Continental Congress. While holding that office in 1781, the Articles of Confederation were ratified which adopted the name “United States.”
In that position, he was successful in getting the states to meet their quotas of men and provisions.
Huntington retired from the Confederation to accept the governorship of Connecticut. Thus, he presided over adoption by that state of the federal Constitution in 1788.
Imprisoned In Tower
Henry Laurens was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776. The following year he succeeded John Hancock as president. He served through 1778.
He was appointed minister to Holland in 1779 to negotiate a treaty. He sailed on the packet “Mercury” which was captured by the British 28-gun frigate “Vestal” off New Newfoundland.
Laurens threw his papers overboard, but they were recovered and disclosed his mission. The refusal of Holland to punish its minister — who had suggested the treaty – led to war between Britain and Holland.
Laurens was taken to London, examined before the Privy Council and imprisoned in the infamous Tower on “suspicion of high treason.” His already failing health deteriorated markedly for 15 months without medical attention.
The former president of the Confederation obtained a pencil and carried on a communication with American newspapers through a trusted friend.
Laurens twice refused offers of pardon if he would cooperate with the British ministry.
His son John, a colonial Minute Man, was sent to Paris in 1781 to negotiate a loan with France. Senior Laurens was informed that his prison sentence would be “less vigorous” if he persuaded John to give up the French negotiations.
Father Laurens declared his son was a man who would never sacrifice honor, even to save his father’s life. John was killed a few months later in a skirmish with British troops in South Carolina.
Laurens petitioned the House of Commons in December 1782 for more liberty in prison. Soon afterward, he was exchanged for Lord Cornwallis and was commissioned by Congress to be one of the ministers to negotiate peace.
He went to Paris with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin and signed the treaty understanding Nov. 30, 1782.
Henry Laurens retired to his plantation, “Mepkin,” near Charleston. He was named a presidential elector for South Carolina — casting a vote for his old friend George Washington as constitutional president of the United States of America.
Citizen Laurens died Dec. 8, 1792, at age 62. He concluded his will with a startling request for that time:
“I solemnly enjoin it on my son, as an indispensable duty, that as soon as he conveniently can, after my decease, he cause my body to be wrapped in twelve yards of tow-cloth and burned until it be entirely consumed, and then, collecting my bones, deposit them wherever he may think proper.”
The cremation was the first in this country. His ashes are interred on his former estate in Berkley County.