John Hanson, 1st President of Congress

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John Hanson

Birthplace: Mulberry Grove, Charles County, Province of Maryland
Death: November 27, 1783 (62)
Oxen Mills, Prince George's County, Maryland, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Samuel Hanson and Elizabeth Hanson
Husband of Jane Hanson
Father of Catherine Contee Alexander; Jane Contee Thomas; Alexander Contee Hanson; David Henson; Elizabeth Hanson and 4 others
Brother of Elizabeth Douglas; Mary Smallwood; Walter Hanson; Sarah Hall; Samuel Hanson and 6 others

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About John Hanson, 1st President of Congress

John Hanson (April 14 [O.S. April 3] 1721 – November 22, 1783) was a merchant and public official from Maryland during the era of the American Revolution. After serving in a variety of roles for the Patriot cause in Maryland, in 1779 Hanson was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation in 1781 after Maryland finally joined the other states in ratifying them. In November 1781, he became the first President of Congress to be elected under the terms of the Articles of Confederation.[1] Because of this, some people claim that he was the first President of the United States.

Early life

John Hanson, Jr. was born at "Mulberry Grove" in Port Tobacco Parish in Charles County in the British Province of Maryland. The American National Biography lists Hanson's birth date as April 3, 1721, which in the modern calendar system is equivalent to April 14, although the older Dictionary of American Biography gives the date as April 13, 1721. Some older sources list a birth year of 1715. Hanson's parents were Samuel and Elizabeth (Story) Hanson. Samuel Hanson was a planter who owned more than 1,000 acres (4.0 km2),[1] and held a variety of political offices, including serving two terms in the Maryland General Assembly.[2]

John Hanson was of English ancestry; his grandfather, also named John, came to Charles County, Maryland, as an indentured servant around 1661. In 1876, a writer named George Hanson placed John Hanson in his family tree of Swedish Americans descended from four Swedish brothers who emigrated to New Sweden in 1642. This story was often repeated over the next century, but scholarly research in the late 20th century suggested that John Hanson was of English heritage and not related to these Swedish American Hansons.

Hanson had no extended formal education while growing up in Maryland, but he read broadly in both English and Latin. He followed the family tradition as a planter, extending and improving his holdings. About 1744 he married Jane Contee, with whom he would have eight children.[1] Their son Alexander Contee Hanson, Sr. (1749–1806) was a notable essayist.[7] Alexander Hanson is sometimes confused with his son, Alexander Contee Hanson, Jr. (1786–1819), who became a newspaper editor and US Senator.

Political career

Hanson's career in public service began in 1750, when he was appointed sheriff of Charles County.[1] In 1757 he was elected to represent Charles County in the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly, where he served over the next twelve years, sitting on many important committees.[1] Maryland was a proprietary colony, and Hanson aligned himself with the "popular" or "country" party, which opposed any expansion of the power of the proprietary governors at the expense of the popularly elected lower house. He was a leading opponent of the 1765 Stamp Act, chairing the committee that drafted the instructions for Maryland's delegates to the Stamp Act Congress. In protest of the Townshend Acts, in 1769 Hanson was one of the signers of a nonimportation resolution that boycotted British imports until the acts were repealed.[1]

Hanson changed course in 1769, apparently to better pursue his business interests. He resigned from the General Assembly, sold his land in Charles County, and moved to Frederick County in western Maryland. There he held a variety of offices, including deputy surveyor, sheriff, and county treasurer.[1]

When relations between Great Britain and the colonies became a crisis in 1774, Hanson became one of Frederick County's leading Patriots. He chaired a town meeting that passed a resolution opposing the Boston Port Act.[1] In 1775, he was a delegate to the Maryland Convention, an extralegal body convened after the colonial assembly had been prorogued. With the other delegates, he signed the Association of Freemen on July 26, 1775, which expressed hope for reconciliation with Great Britain, but also called for military resistance to enforcement of the Intolerable Acts.[2]

With hostilities underway, Hanson chaired the Frederick County committee of observation, part of the Patriot organization that assumed control of local governance. Responsible for recruiting and arming soldiers, Hanson proved to be an excellent organizer, and Frederick County sent the first southern troops to join George Washington's army.[1]

Hanson was elected to the newly reformed Maryland House of Delegates in 1777, the first of five annual terms.[1] In December 1779, the House of Delegates named Hanson as one of its delegates to the Second Continental Congress. He began those duties when he took his seat in Philadelphia on June 14, 1780, serving until 1782. While Hanson was in Congress, the Articles of Confederation were at last ratified by all the states. When the Congress received notice of this on March 1, 1781, he joined Daniel Carroll in endorsing them for Maryland.

President of Congress

In November 1781, Hanson became the first President of the Continental Congress to be elected for an annual term as specified in the Articles of Confederation,[1] although Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKean had served in that office after the ratification of the Articles. Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States had no executive branch; the President of Congress was a mostly ceremonial position within the Confederation Congress, but the office did require Hanson to handle a good deal of correspondence and sign official documents.[8] Hanson found the work tedious and wished to resign, but his departure would have left Congress without a quorum to select a successor, and so, out of a sense of duty, he remained in office.[1]

Because Hanson was the first president under the Articles of Confederation, one of his grandsons later promoted him as the first President of the United States. This ultimately resulted in Hanson's statue being one of two representing Maryland in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, even though, according to historian Gregory Stiverson, Hanson was not one of Maryland's foremost leaders of the Revolutionary era.[1] The claim that Hanson was the forgotten first President of the United States was further promoted in an 1932 biography of Hanson by journalist Seymour Wemyss Smith.[9] Smith's book, which contained no footnotes or references, made expansive claims about Hanson's role, asserting that the American Revolution had two primary leaders: George Washington in the military sphere, and John Hanson in politics.[10]

The myth was revived in the age of the Internet, sometimes with a new claim that Hanson was actually a black man. Some Internet sites use a photograph of Senator John Hanson of Liberia to support the claim.[11]

Death and legacy

Hanson retired from public office after his one-year term as President of Congress. In poor health, he died a year later at his nephew's plantation Oxon Hill Manor in Prince George's County, Maryland, on November 22, 1783. The grave site is lost.

Maryland law specifies that "the Governor annually shall proclaim April 13 as John Hanson's birthday and dedicate that day to the statesman." Also, the John Hanson Highway is named 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 was merged in the 1990s with Industrial Bank of Washington, D.C.. A namesake, John Hanson Briscoe, was a circuit judge and Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

In 1903 the state of Maryland donated a bronze statue by Richard E. Brooks to the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection. It is currently located on the 2nd floor of the Senate connecting corridor. A maquette of the Hanson statue by Brooks resides on the President's dais in the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House.

John Hanson was featured on a U.S. postage stamp issued in 1981.

Born April 3, 1721 in Port Tobacco Parish, Charles County, Maryland. Son of Samuel Hanson (c. 1685-1740) and Elizabeth Storey Hanson (c. 1688-1764). Married Jane Contee (1728-1812) in 1744 or 1747. Children: Catherine Contee (b. 1744), Jane Contee (1747-1781), Alexander Contee (1749-1806), Elizabeth (1751-1753), John (1753-1760), Samuel (1756-1781), Peter Contee (1758-1776), and Grace (1762-1763). Resided in Charles County until 1769 when he moved to Frederick County. Died November 15, 1783. Buried at Oxen Hill, Prince George's County.

John Hanson (sometimes referred to as John Hanson, Jr.) was a lawyer, merchant, and owner of a store and warehouse in Frederick Town. He served as sheriff of Charles County from 1750 to 1753. He was elected to the Lower House representing Charles County and served from 1757 to 1763 and again from 1765 to 1766 and from 1768 to 1769. He moved to Frederick County in 1769 and was deputy surveyor in Frederick County from 1769 to 1777. He also served as sheriff in Frederick County after 1771. In 1775 he chaired the Frederick County Committee of Observation. That same year he was elected treasurer of Frederick County. The following year he served as a commissioner to establish gunlock manufactory in Frederick Town. He was a loan officer, to receive subscriptions for loan of money to the Continental Congress and to the State of Maryland, appointed in 1777. He was appointed a judge on the Court of Appeals in 1778. He was a delegate to Continental Congress from 1780 to 1782. As part of the Maryland congressional delegation he signed the Articles of Confederation in 1781, causing their adoption and closing a prolonged debate over the disposition of western lands that had at last been resolved to Maryland's satisfaction.

Hanson was elected president of Congress on November 5, 1781. One week later he considered resigning from this position because of poor health, family responsibilities, and the "irksome" qualities of the "form and ceremonies" required as president. He was urged to continue by fellow members who cited the great difficulty Congress would have selecting a replacement, since only seven states were then represented. Hanson decided to remain as president contingent upon his reelection as a delegate by the Maryland Assembly. On November 28, 1781, Maryland returned him as one of her four delegates, and he continued as president of Congress until November 4, 1782. He died November 15, 1783 at the home of his nephew, Thomas Hanson, at Oxon Hill, Prince George's County.

Sometimes erroneously called the first President of the US, in actuality John Hanson was the third President of the Continental Congress (following Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKean), although he was the first to serve a full year term and was the first to formally use the title "President of the United States in Congress Assembled."

There are an amazing number of other myths (see link below) about John Hanson, including one propagated by comedian and activist Dick Gregory that he was decended from an African-American slave!

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John Hanson, 1st President of Congress's Timeline

April 3, 1721
Mulberry Grove, Charles County, Province of Maryland
November 16, 1744
October 22, 1749
Charles County, Maryland, United States
Augusta County, Province of Virginia
March 18, 1753
Charles County, Province of Maryland
August 25, 1756
Charles County, Province of Maryland
December 9, 1758
Charles County, Province of Maryland