OUR FIRST PRESIDENT … WAS WHO?!

 

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

My New Year’s resolution this year was to  tune out the news.  As a result, the satellite radio in my car now plays either music or comedy. So far I’ve been much happier and less depressed so I guess the old saying, “Ignorance is bliss” is true.  But that’s a discussion for another time.   Today, apropos to the holiday, I want to share something I learned while listening to the “60’s on 6” program on Sirius XM.  The host asked who the first President of the United States was.  You just know when they ask such an obvious question that the answer will come out of left field.  Sure enough, a couple of minutes later a guy called in and said the answer was John Hanson.  “Yep!”, cried the host.  I just about drove off the road.  I consider myself a pretty good student of history.  I minored in it in college and to this day every other book I read is a history book of some sort.  I’ve never even heard of this Hanson fellow.  The whole thing sounded bogus to me.  What about George?  What about his chopping down the cherry tree and smiling with his wooden teeth?  Was everything I learned in school wrong?  I went in search of the answer.

  Hanson in the late 1760’s

It turns out that there is a contingent who support the notion that Hanson was our first President.  Conveniently, most of those people are his descendants.  For what it’s worth, here’s a bit of history on him and after reading this you can form your own opinion.  In 1661 John Hanson’s grandfather came to America as an indentured servant.  Two generations later John was born in 1721 to what was by then a very wealthy and prominent family.  Little is known about his early life but his career in public service began in 1750, when he was appointed sheriff of Charles County. He then served in the Maryland General Assembly for twelve years before moving to Frederick County where he held a variety of offices, including deputy surveyor, sheriff, and county treasurer.  He was one busy guy and, if nothing else, may have been our first professional politician.  When relations between Great Britain and the colonies soured in 1774, Hanson became one of Frederick County’s leading Patriots.   He was known for his organization skills in gathering supplies to use against the Tories and even paid the rag tag Revolutionary forces out of his own pocket.  Think about that – do you see any of our current elected officials dipping into their own funds?  So we have to assume he was a dedicated guy.

Hanson, painted when he was “president”

In December 1779, the Revolutionary War victorious for the Patriots, the Maryland House of Delegates named Hanson to the Second Continental Congress; he began serving in Congress in Philadelphia in June 1780.  On November 5, 1781, Congress elected Hanson as its president.  And this is where the controversy begins.  Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States had no executive branch; the president of Congress was a mostly ceremonial position.  The office did require Hanson to serve as neutral discussion moderator, handle official correspondence, and sign documents which sounds to me like he was a high-priced arbitrator.  Apparently Hanson didn’t think much of his duties either because he is said to have found the work tedious and considered resigning after just one week, citing his poor health and family responsibilities.  I think that was the precursor to “resigning to pursue other opportunities” excuse.  Out of a sense of duty Hanson remained in office, and though he obviously was trying to squirm out of the job, the Maryland Assembly reelected him as a delegate on November 28, 1781, and he continued to serve as president until November 4, 1782.  He died 11 days later so maybe he really was sick.

Hanson bronze in Statuary Hall

In 1898, Douglas H. Thomas, a descendant of Hanson, wrote a biography promoting Hanson as the first true President of the United States. Thomas became the driving force behind the selection of Hanson as one of the two people who would represent Maryland in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.  His statue was completed in 1903 and can still be seen today in the Senate connecting corridor.  His selection as one of the two bronzes to represent Maryland has been controversial from the start, with many contemporary historians citing others who were more deserving.  As recently as 2011, Maryland lawmakers have considered replacing Hanson’s statue in Statuary Hall with one of Harriet Tubman.  In any event, the argument as to whether Hanson was the first President was further promulgated in a 1932 biography of Hanson by journalist Seymour Wemyss Smith.  Again, historians dismissed Smith’s viewpoint because his research was less than stellar.

The most compelling argument as to why we consider George Washington, not John Hanson, our first President is that Washington was the first to have true executive powers under the Constitution.  That seems like a sensible argument to me.  The one thing that became clear in my reading is that John Hanson’s reputation has been commemorated far more than most of his contemporaries, other than the Founding Fathers.  In 1972, he was depicted on a 6-cent US postal card, which featured his name and portrait next to the word “Patriot”.   In 1981, Hanson was featured on a 20-cent US postage stamp. U.S. Route 50 between Washington D.C. and Annapolis is named the John Hanson Highway in his honor. There are also middle schools located in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and Waldorf, Maryland, named after him. A former savings bank named for him until it went under during the savings and loan crisis.  And maybe that is the fitting end for his legacy given that most serious researchers consider his elevation to the “first President of the United States” to be based on an old hoax.

 

When Did ‘Independence Day’ Become the ‘4th of July’?

by Bob Sparrow

Founding

Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin

Ahhh, the 4th of July – warm weather, baseball games, parades, old glory flying, fireworks, barbecues and beer. Who doesn’t love that? The neighborhood I live in has made this day a very special one from the time our kids were very small. We’ve had parades where the kids decorated their bikes in red, white and blue streamers. We’d go to the local school grounds and taught the kids to play softball until the year that they taught us. We’d play horseshoes and go swimming. We’d barbecue burgers and hot dogs, have a few cold beers (not the kids!) and when it got dark we launched some fireworks.

We thought it was the perfect 4th of July, and it probably was, but it wasn’t the perfect ‘Independence Day’. Nary a word was spoken about the courage of George Washington, the eloquent writing of Thomas Jefferson, the legal leadership of John Adams, or the many talents of Benjamin Franklin. And with all the media we’re surrounded with today, I’m betting that you don’t hear much about these heroes this week as we prepare for what is suppose to be a celebration of what these, and many other courageous men and women, did to create this incredible country.

It’s curious how we’ve personified virtually every other holiday we celebrate with characters, from Father Time to Santa Claus, but we’ve actually taken the Independence‘characters’, our Founding Fathers, out of our Independence Day celebration and relegated it to just a date.  It would be like instead of calling it Christmas, we’d just call it ’25th of December’, or instead of Easter we’d call it the ‘first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox’; OK, maybe we’d keep that one as Easter.  Independence Day is many American’s favorite holiday, but it’s because of the aforementioned activities not because we spend much time recalling and recognizing the deeds of the truly amazing people who founded this nation.

I suspect part of the reason for our lack enthusiasm over celebrating as the victors of the Revolutionary War, is that we don’t see England as our enemy anymore. In fact, they are, arguably, our strongest ally, but back in the day, they were not so very nice to us and they were particularly pissed when we told them to take their taxes and tea bags and put them where the sun don’t shine.

GeorgeIII

King George III

King George III, king of England at the time of our revolution, was a particularly annoying bastard – you can read some of our grievances with him in the actual Declaration of Independence, which, by the way can be printed on two typewritten pages – sans signatures. Maybe this year, you could print it out and read it during the barbecue, preferably before ‘beer thirty’. You might also mention that our Founding Father’s were not only courageous, but were very intelligent and interesting people. To wit:

–       George Washington, who is the only US president never to run for president, was elected twice by a unanimous decision of the Electoral College (He got every vote!) – popular vote was not used in those days. As president, he refused to be paid. But, he was also the richest president in history, with total assets in excess of $500 million in today’s dollars.

–       Thomas Jefferson publicly opposed slavery, even though he owned slaves his entire adult life and had 5 children with his slave, Sally Hemings.

–       John Adams died on the same day as his rival Thomas Jefferson on July 4th, 1826, the 50thanniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

–       The multi-talented Benjamin Franklin could speak 6 languages: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin . . . and English

–       Our first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was shot and mortally wounded by Vice President Aaron Burr in one of the most famous duels in American history.

–       Patrick Henry, an attorney, had many people who had nothing to do with a case visit his court hearings just to hear him speak; he was that good of a public speaker.

–       Benedict Arnold, the famous traitor, was a General in both the American and British armies – some say at the same time.

I hope you all have a great 4th of July, but I also hope that you also make it a great ‘Independence Day’ and remember those who, nearly 240 years ago, gave us the freedoms that we so enjoy to this day.