Top 8 Americans – America’s Forgotten Presidents 1774 – 1781

Jim McCullough
Mon, Jan 27, 2014
Subject: America's Forgotten 8 Presidents
www.MorningLiberty.com 

http://www.filibustercartoons.com/earlypresidents.htm#

Presidents of the United States before George Washington

We all know that George Washington was the first president of the 
United States, and served from 1789 to 1797. But we also know that the 
United States declared independence from Britain in 1776. So who was in 
charge for those 13 years between 1776 and 1789? The question is 
surprisingly controversial, and weirdly polarizing. Some maintain that 
America had no single "leader" during that time, and that Congress was 
simply supreme. Others dispute this analysis, and say no, there very 
clearly were people identifying themselves as "presidents" of the 
United States as early as 1774, even if they were not particularly 
powerful, and are not widely remembered today.

Let's take a look at these so-called "forgotten presidents."

Presidents of the Continental Congress during the early Revolution 
period (1774-1781)

From 1774 to 1781 the highest authority of the American rebel forces 
was the Continental Congress of the United Colonies (later United 
States). Consisting of 56 delegates from 13 North American British 
colonies, it was an assembly founded to independently debate the 
colonies' relationship with the United Kingdom, and help coordinate the 
pursuit of their collective interests. The Congress' first meeting 
occurred on September 5, 1774 in Philadelphia. Two years later it would 
ratify the Declaration of Independence.

The chairman of the Continental Congress was called the "president," 
and his job was fairly similar to that of the modern-day Speaker of the 
House. He had no real powers other than to "preside," which is actually 
where the term "president" comes from. A different delegate was elected 
president each time the Congress met, so their terms were quite brief. 
A lot of them likewise resigned mid-term to pursue other jobs or 
appointments.

The following men served as President of the Continental Congress from 
1774 to 1781:

#
NAME
STATE
TERM
TIME IN OFFICE
NOTES
CONGRESS

1
Peyton Randolph (1st time)
Virginia
September 5, 1774 – October 22, 1774
1 month, 17 d.
resigned
1st Continental Congress

2
Henry Middleton (acting)
South Carolina 
October 22, 1774 – October 26, 1774
4 d.
interim

No one, Congress adjourned
October 26, 1774 – May 10, 1775
6 months, 14 d.

3
Peyton Randolph (2nd time)
Virginia
May 10, 1775 – May 24, 1775
14 d.
resigned
2nd Continental Congress

4
John Hancock
Massachusetts
May 24, 1775 – October 28, 1777
2 years, 5 months, 4 d.
resigned

5
Charles Thomson (acting)
Pennsylvania 
October 29, 1777 – November 1, 1777
2 d.
interim

6
Henry Laurens
South Carolina
November 1, 1777 – December 9, 1778
1 year, 1 month, 1 d.
 

7
John Jay
New York
December 10, 1778 – September 28, 1779
9 months, 18 d.
resigned

8
Samuel Huntington
Connecticut 
September 28, 1779 – March 2, 1781
1 year, 5 months, 4 d.
 

The Presidents of the United States Congress
March 2, 1781 —

In 1775 it was decided that the Congress should also appoint a 
Commander-in-Chief, to command the United States armed forces. There 
was some talk of giving the president of Congress this job, but it was 
instead decided that the two positions should be separate.

There was only one Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and his 
term overlapped with the tenure of the Second Continental Congress and 
the government of the Articles of Confederation (see below). The man's 
name, of course, was:

George Washington
Virginia
June 15, 1775 – December 23, 1783
8 years, 6 months, 8 d.

After Washington resigned, the office of Commander-in-Chief was 
eliminated, and replaced with the less powerful position of Senior 
Officer of the Army, the precursor to the modern-day Chief of Staff of 
the Army. Until Washington became President of the United States in 
1789, in the years following 1783 America did not have a single 
individual tasked with the duties of "Commander-in-Chief.".

Presidents of the United States Congress under the Articles of 
Confederation (1781-1789)

The Articles of Confederation 
<http: //www.usconstitution.net/articles.html>, passed by the 
Continental Congress in 1781, marked the first attempt to give the 
newly independent United States a firmly-defined, constitutional 
political structure. The 13 states did not yet fully consider 
themselves as a proper country, though, and the document merely defined 
the US as a "firm league of friendship " that would allow every member 
state to retain its "sovereignty, freedom, and independence."

The few powers the states were willing to give up were once again 
concentrated in the Congress, and again, the president was a weak 
figure tasked mostly with presiding. Article IX merely declared that 
the Congress would "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," and assigned no other official 
duties to the office.

In practice, the presidents performed some minor ceremonial duties and 
often signed documents on behalf of the Congress as a whole. This did 
not imply he had any sort of final power of approval, however. The 
presidency of those days is perhaps best compared to the president of a 
social club or a chairman of a board of directors; someone who could 
occasionally represent, and speak for, the organization in a public, 
official capacity, but was not a very important or powerful figure in 
day-to-day decision making.

The Articles of Confederation were abolished in 1789, and a new 
constitution was introduced which created a strong, executive 
presidency (among other things). George Washington assumed office as 
the first full-fledged "President of the United States," a title that 
had only been used informally until then.

The following individuals held the office of president of Congress 
under the Articles of Confederation; they are usually called the "Presidents 
of the United States in Congress Assembled."

#
NAME
STATE
TERM
TIME IN OFFICE
NOTES
CONGRESS

1
Samuel Huntington *
Connecticut 
March 2, 1781 – July 10, 1781
4 months, 8 d.
resigned
1st

2
Thomas McKean *
Delaware
July 10, 1781 – November 4, 1781
3 months, 24 d.
 

3
John Hanson
Maryland
November 5, 1781 – November 3, 1782
11 months, 29 d.
full term
2nd

4
Elias Boudinot
Pennsylvania 
November 4, 1782 – November 2, 1783
11 months, 28 d.
full term
3rd

5
Thomas Mifflin
Pennsylvania
November 3, 1783 – October 31, 1784
11 months, 28 d.
full term
4th

No one, Congress adjourned
October 31, 1784 – November 30, 1784
1 month

6
Richard Henry Lee *
Virginia
November 30, 1784 – November 6, 1785
11 months, 6 d.
full term
5th

No one, Congress adjourned
November 6, 1785 – November 23, 1785
17 d.

7
John Hancock *
Massachusetts
November 23, 1785 – June 5, 1786
6 months, 12 d.
resigned
6th

8
Nathaniel Gorham
Massachusetts
June 5, 1786 – November 5, 1786
5 months
 

No one, Congress adjourned
November 5, 1786 – February 2, 1787
2 months, 27 d.

9
Arthur St. Clair
Pennsylvania
February 2, 1787 – November 4, 1787
9 months, 2 d.
resigned
7th

No one, Congress adjourned
November 4, 1787 – January 22, 1788
2 months, 18 d.

10
Cyrus Griffin
Virginia
January 22, 1788 – November 2, 1788
9 months, 10 d.
 
8th

No one, Congress adjourned
November 2, 1788 – April 30, 1789
5 months, 28 d.

The Presidents of the United States of America
April 30, 1789 —

Though the presidency was very weak, the Articles of Confederation did 
allow for a 13-member "Committee of the States" to hold significant 
executive power. It was sort of a cabinet in the parliamentary style, 
and appointed a Secretary of Foreign Affairs and a Secretary of War. 
The occupants of those two offices were much more important and 
powerful individuals than the president of the Congress, and are 
probably more worthwhile to study if we're trying to determine who was 
truly "leading" the US at this time.

Why is all this controversial?

Like many bits of obscure trivia, there's been a tendency for people 
who are aware of the "pre-Washington presidents" to inflate the 
historical relevance of this information as a way of showing off. 
You'll sometimes hear fringe, wannabe historians make a big fuss about 
"the first ten presidents of the United States" and bemoan the fact 
that no one knows anything about them. There's a guy on the internet, 
for example, who sells commemorative coins of the Articles of 
Confederation presidents in an effort to "rehabilitate" their 
reputation (and no doubt strengthen his own).

This sort of stuff has, in turn, prompted a fair bit of pushback from 
those who revere the modern US presidency, and don't like seeing the 
office cheapened by introducing a bunch of new "presidents" who barely 
did anything important and served extremely short terms. Establishment 
historians thus tend to undermine the relevance of the presidents of 
the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, and insist 
that George Washington is the only American president worth starting 
any lists with.

The most mature attitude is probably somewhere in the middle. It's 
important to understand that the United States did have an organized 
system of government between 1774 and 1789, and it's true that this 
phase of American history tends to be comparatively under-studied and 
under-analyzed. At the same time, however, it's wrong to assume that 
the early government of the United States was in any way structured 
similarly to the government America has today, and it's a very flawed 
analogy to compare the early presidents of the US Congress to the 
presidents under the post-1789 constitution. Not all presidents are 
created equal, no matter how similar their titles may have been.

Here are a few important facts worth remembering about the early 
presidents:

 – The title "president" was chosen because it implied an overseer, 
 rather than a ruler. America's desire to be a federal country made 
 the Founders skeptical of more authoritative-sounding positions.
 
 – Many of the presidents who served under the Articles of 
 Confederation were also singers of the Declaration of Independence. 
 They are marked with a * above. John Hancock's signature on the 
 Declaration is the biggest because he was president of the Congress 
 at the time of its passage.
 
 – A few early presidents would go on to serve in other important 
 positions of the US government following the conclusion of their 
 presidential terms. John Jay (president of the Continental Congress, 
 1778-1779) served as the first Chief Justice of the United States, 
 John Hancock (president twice, under both pre-1789 systems) served as 
 Governor of Massachusetts, and Thomas McKean (president under the 
 Articles, 1781) served as Governor of Pennsylvania. Most of the other 
 presidents died before 1789.

Thoughts? Concerns? Email me at jjmccullough@gmail.com
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