Once upon a time, there was that forgotten wacky period in American politics when Maryland finally ratified the Articles of Confederation purposed in 1777 by the 2nd Continental Congress in 1781, and the first President of the United States in Perpetual Union, John Hanson took office. This position, we are told by historians was mostly ceremonial, no real power, much like the Vice President presiding over the Senate today. Nonetheless, Hanson accomplished a few things as the first president of the first independent government of the states. For one, he fixed the date of Thanksgiving. A neat little piece of trivia that comes up from time to time in quiz games. More important to the future of the United States was Hanson’s insistence that the western territories be granted a path to statehood, and as sort of the proto-Commander in Chief (and remember Washington was still in charge of the Continental Army) he also ensured the removal of the remaining British troops and mercenaries from American shores. Hanson also introduced a treasury department, and an office of foreign affairs, and appointed the first Secretary of War. He did this in a span of a year, the term of a President under the Articles of Confederation. Seven others would serve after Hanson before the first American political experiment imploded and the Constitutional Convention was convened. Eight total American presidents forgotten.
But wait, there’s more! Before Hanson, two others served as quasi presidents of the 2nd Continental Congress/Articles of Confederation before Maryland ratified. Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKean have the dubious honor of being sort of presidents in waiting. Filling the executive void of correspondence stamper and letter writer in a period of war and transition.
1781 to 1787, and finally to 1789 was a fascinating time in American politics. It was the petri dish of modern political republics, in short order exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the political forces at work. We often view George Washington through rose-colored glasses, but his assumption of office was as a strong man bringing stability and union in a time of increasing unrest and bifurcation. There was a real fear the British would be back and if the states couldn’t stand together, they would fall one by one.
I had the great fortune to come across a collection of books about the Presidents of the United States, sort of an encyclopedia of Americana, when I was young. The first volume was dedicated entirely to Washington and the history of the Constitution. What was amazing to me was that in school I was being taught an almost god-like reverence for Washington as the Father of the Nation, the Great General who single handedly defeated the British, and yet in this book I had found, there were excerpts from letters and newspaper articles critical of electing a military man to political office. Correspondence that outlined the fears America was on the path to empire even before it began, that the many republics under the Articles of Confederation might be dysfunctional but preferable to the one union under the new Constitution. Most importantly, there wasn’t one voice or one founding father, but many who gave shape and form to this great political experiment we’re still tinkering with today, and introduced me to the presidents before our 1st president and the process it took to get to 1789 in the first place.
You might infer from the above I am not fond of Washington, but that would not be true. Washington set in motion presidential traditions that helped keep the nation from fragmenting before it even started, and for all that one can point to and criticize with 20/20 hindsight, he was the answer to the troubles plaguing the states at the time. I would just ask that while we’re basking in the glory of Washington crossing the Delaware, we remember that French fleet under de Grasse at the battle of Chesapeake which ensured the British surrender at Yorktown.
President’s Day gets a lot of grief these days, and if we’re only deifying the long dead then I can understand that, but perhaps if we actually looked at the history, the ideas, the men, faults and flaws included, we might find something of interest, something worthy of consideration at least, of knowing. The thing about teaching history is it is almost always presented in a fast linear style. That number line indicating constant progress. My impression has been more of a mostly two steps forward for every one backwards, and occasionally it is two backward for every baby step forward. We need to study the reverse flow of progress as much as the forward. In terms of the United States, the political philosophy at work alone, is worthy of an attempt to understand. Figuring out liberty and freedom aren’t quite the same thing in the eyes of our founding fathers might be a good starting point. Not to mention, the nature of tyranny. Context is always important, and at the very least, don’t forget those eight men out of normal President’s day consideration. Sweeping them under the rug of history serves no one.