Forget Washington

it's Hanson or Huntington

Challenge: Connecticut says a native son was the first president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, not a Marylander.

February 15, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

IT'S AN OBSCURE piece of history long taught in some Maryland schools, hidden in some history books: A Charles County patriot named John Hanson - not George Washington - was the first president of the United States.

This arcane truth, dear to Hanson's descendants and other Marylanders, says the country was formed in 1781 with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, and someone had to be running the country a full eight years before Washington became president under the much-improved U.S. Constitution. And as far as they're concerned, that first full-term someone was Hanson - one of 10 men, actually, who served over those years as "president" before Washington.

But woe to Maryland, Connecticut is now claiming that its native son came first.

Members of the Norwich Historical Society say Samuel Huntington, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of their state, was in fact the first president under the Articles of Confederation - the first to hold the wordy title of the President of the United States in Congress Assembled - even though he was a carry-over from the preceding Continental Congress and didn't complete a full term.

"We're not trying to take away from Hanson or Washington, but he was there at the beginning," says Bill Stanley, president of the Norwich Historical Society. "Like an Olympic sprinter, he crossed the line first."

The group says it wants the nation to know that Huntington was No. 1. At the same time, a Connecticut congressman says he wants all 10 of the pre-Washington presidents recognized every year in the same way as those who came afterward, with wreaths laid at their graves on their birthdays.

"These other men and their families bore a tremendous burden and we think they all deserve that wreath," says Rep. Rob Simmons, who said he might sponsor legislation to honor the 10 men.

John Hanson Briscoe, a Hanson descendant, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and a retired St. Mary's County Circuit judge, dismisses the claim from the Huntington proponents. He insists, as he has for years in various speeches and conversations, that Hanson was the genuine first among firsts. Still, he said, he likes the idea of recognizing all of the early presidents. "His ancestors and mine are certainly forgotten," Briscoe says.

Several schools in Maryland are named for Hanson. The portion of U.S. 50 from Annapolis to Washington is officially known as the John Hanson Highway. Hanson's statute is in Statuary Hall in Congress.

"My ego doesn't need to have the world decree him the first president, but I enjoy talking about it," Briscoe says. "Regardless of whether history will remember him as the first president, he was a great patriot."

Maryland's state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse also is in Hanson's corner. "The John Hanson claim is a reasonable, sensible and legitimate one but it's also important to recognize the role of other presidents of Congress," he says. "Of course, there will be people who will be absolutely [undone] that John Hanson's place in the pantheon of American presidents is once again under attack."

Hanson's place in history notwithstanding, it's not easy to challenge Washington's credentials - Revolutionary War hero, father of our country, whose white-haired likeness is found on quarters and dollar bills, whose name graces the nation's capital, a West Coast state, many cities, towns and schools across the country.

Briscoe laughs when asked why Washington has gotten the credit all these years. "George Washington came from aristocracy, and John Hanson came from fairly humble means, and George Washington spent the night in a lot of places, and he got to be much more well-known," Briscoe said. "John Hanson was a family man."

Whatever the reason, one amateur historian thinks the whole numbering system must be overhauled, placing Huntington first, Washington 11th and George W. Bush 53rd.

Stanley Klos, whose rambling Web site www.uspresidency.com tells the tale of these early presidents in detail, is issuing a self-published book next month titled President Who? He lives near Pittsburgh in a town named for Arthur St. Clair, aka the ninth president under the Articles. He says other elements of history need correcting, too.

For example, Delaware, despite the license plates and state quarters proclaiming otherwise, is not really "The First State." Sure, it ratified the Constitution before the others, but it was 12th to ratify the Articles, he says, and that's when the loosely associated colonies became one nation. Virginia ratified the Articles first, he says.

"I'm not trying to rewrite history - I'm just trying to right it, that's all," Klos says.

Klos says the misconception about Hanson being the first dates back to a book published in 1932 by Seymour Wemyss Smith titled John Hanson, Our First President. Klos and others say Huntington was president of the Continental Congress at the moment the last state - Maryland - ratified the Articles on March 1, 1781.

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