As of November 2017, the United States of America had 45 presidents - well technically 44 people as Grover Cleveland was president twice - but there have been 45 presidencies since 1789. But have you ever thought about who ‘ran’ the United States before George Washington took office in 1789? The US called for Independence from Great Britain in 1776. Doing the math, there were 13 years between the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s term as president, although the early ‘presidents’ began even earlier… Jennifer Johnson explains.

 A portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797.

A portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797.

 

The Start of a New Nation

For many American colonists, declaring Independence from Great Britain was a surprise. Due to treason laws, the men who became known as the Founding Fathers, met in secret while determining how they would fight for independence from the Mother Country. And they knew that once independence was declared, it would be a fight to the finish. Therefore, there was a lot that transpired after the Declaration of Independence, namely the American Revolutionary War. However, even with the US at war with Great Britain, someone still needed to oversee the newly formed United States. So, who could that be? Step forward, the President of the Continental Congress.

Before we get too far into who the presidents before George Washington were, it is important to note that the Presidents of the Continental Congress and the Presidents of the USA ended up with different responsibilities. One reason for this is America, at war with Britain, was not truly independent until the 1780s. Even during the different presidencies of the Continental Congress, responsibilities changed. And one of the biggest differences was the term in office. There were many presidents for short periods before George Washington. The Continental Presidents could stay in office until they resigned or Congress felt a new president was necessary - at least before the Articles of Confederation were agreed.

 

The Early Continental Presidents

Peyton Randolph is known as the first President of the Continental Congress, or Continental President.  He was given this title in September 1774 when everyone in Congress voted for him to be so. However, in October 1774, Henry Middleton became the second Continental President for about a week, after which Peyton Randolph took over again, this time for a little under a month due to poor health.  Once Randolph resigned a second-time due to his health and headed back to Virginia to be with his family, one of the most famous Founding Fathers took over, John Hancock. Hancock stayed on as president until October 1777. John Hancock did not even step down as Continental President when Peyton Randolph came back for a period of time, though many felt Hancock should have in order to let Randolph assume his responsibilities. Unfortunately, all this debate ended when Peyton Randolph passed away suddenly of a stroke in October 1775. This means that John Hancock was the first President of the Continental Congress to preside under the US after the Revolutionary War broke out and after independence was declared. Henry Laurens was the fifth Continental President and served from the time Hancock stepped down until December 1778. Laurens was succeeded by John Jay, who served until September 28, 1779.  The seventh Continental Congress President was Samuel Huntington, who served from the date John Jay stepped down until a couple months after the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781. 

 

Continental Presidents Under the Articles of Confederation

Once the Articles of Confederation were ratified by all of America’s 13 states, the responsibilities of the Presidents of the Continental Congress began to extend. Thomas McKean was the first Continental President to hold his full term under the Articles of Confederation, lasting from July 1781 to November of that year. John Hanson was the ninth and lasted a year in office, from November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782.  Then it was the turn of Elias Boudinot from New Jersey, who was in place until November 3, 1783. The eleventh Continental President was Thomas Mifflin, who served as president until June 1784. Unfortunately for Mifflin, he had a tough short term as Continental President as General George Washington resigned in December 1783 and then Mifflin had the challenge of trying to get enough delegates from the states so Congress could ratify the Treaty of Paris. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was the twelfth and resided in office from November 30, 1784 to November 4, 1785.  The thirteenth was once again John Hancock, who filled the position from November 1785 to June 1786. After Hancock’s second term as Continental President, Nathaniel Gorham took over from June 6, 1786 until November of that same year. The last two Continental Presidents were Arthur St. Clair, who was in office from February to November 1787, and Cyrus Griffin who was president until November 1788.

 

George Washington becomes President

The famous first President, and truly first president with the title and responsibilities of the President of the USA, took office in 1789 and served two terms as president, until 1797. As the majority of Americans know, George Washington is one of the most famous and heavily researched of all the United States’ presidents. However, Washington was in many ways not truly the first president of United States of America as an independent country. 

 

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References

"Continental Presidents." Continental Presidents ***. Accessed October 5, 2017. https://www.landofthebrave.info/continental-presidents.htm.

History.com Staff. "John Hancock." History.com. 2009. Accessed October 8, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/john-hancock.

"Peyton Randolph: The forgotten revolutionary president." National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. Accessed October 5, 2017. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/peyton-randolph-the-forgotten-revolutionary-president.

"President of the Continental Congress." Wikipedia. October 07, 2017. Accessed October 14, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_the_Continental_Congress.

"Thomas Mifflin." Wikipedia. October 06, 2017. Accessed October 14, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mifflin.