This week marks the passing of the first man allegedly to be called “president” in the United States. His role in American history remains vague, and the current location of his body is a mystery.
John Hanson was the first official to serve a full term in office under the terms of the ratified Articles of Confederation in 1781.
In reality, Hanson’s role in the young U.S. government had little in common with the job of the chief executive described in the Constitution, which was drawn up in 1787.
But Hanson did have an important role during the Revolutionary War, and the debate over his role as “president” serves to educate people about the period before the Constitution was ratified.
George Washington was the first president as we know it and he was a crucial figure in keeping the nation together for eight years.
In fact, Washington was so central to the young republic as the head of the executive branch that he ran for office virtually uncontested, and his decision to not run for a third term set off a chain reaction that led to our current two-party political process.
The same can’t be said for John Hanson.
Hanson was a patriot who was named to the Continental Congress in 1780 as a member from Maryland. In his own state, Hanson supported independence and was a valued organizer.
The planter from Maryland became the president of what is known as the Confederation Congress in November 1781, in an apparent deal to secure his state’s approval of the Articles of Confederation that March.
Two other men, Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKeon, served partial terms as president of the body before Hanson.
The Articles only have a brief mention of a president, who would serve a very limited administrative role in conducting votes and signing paperwork.
Hanson was the first president of that Congress to be elected and serve a full term for one year. He died after leaving office on November 22, 1783.
While Hanson seemed to be destined to become an historical footnote, it seems that his descendants had other ideas. They lobbied for Hanson to be recognized as the nation’s first president.
In 1903, a statue of Hanson was put in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection, as one of two tributes allowed for each state.
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Since then, there have been various myths about Hanson, including one that he was related to Swedish royalty and another that he was of black ancestry.
Hanson’s statue also survived an attempt last year to replace it with one of Harriet Tubman in the Statuary Hall Collection.
Historians have also pointed out that Peyton Randolph was the first person to have the title of president, at the First Congress in 1774, and Hanson was the eighth person to be called president at a Congress.
Still, the idea of Hanson as the first president has a wide following on the Internet, and he’s considered as a key Founding Father in his home state of Maryland.
Hanson’s roles in creating the Great Seal of the United States and Thanksgiving are also the subjects of ongoing debates.
But in literal terms, Hanson remains a “lost” Founding Father because no one knows where his body is.
Hanson was staying at his nephew’s plantation, called Oxon Hill Manor, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, when he passed away in November 1783.
The original mansion burned down in 1895 and it appears that Hanson’s crypt went missing until the 1980s, along with his body.
A Hanson relative, Peter Michael, wrote in a Maryland newspaper in March that Hanson’s grave site was found, and it was listed as sealed and intact in a 1985 state survey on the former grounds of Oxon Hill Manor.
But two years later, Michael said an archeologist’s survey, commissioned by a developer that bought the property, found that the tomb was opened and robbed–Hanson’s body was gone.
The grave site itself went missing a few years later when the property was made into a waterfront resort. The mausoleum was apparently paved over for a parking lot.
Today, a marker sits near the grounds of Oxon Hill Manor as a tribute to Hanson. He’s called “an honored patriot of the American Revolution.”