Back Story: All-but-forgotten Marylander was first president under Articles of Confederation

"Many consider John Hanson, who was John Hanson Briscoe's relative and for whom he was named, as being the first president of the United States, and not George Washington," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who was discussing the recent death of Briscoe, his longtime friend and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

And regarding John Hanson's claim to being the first president, Hoyer is technically right. Hanson was elected the first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation in 1781, several years before George Washington took the role under the newly formed United States.

But as far as name recognition goes today, if Marylanders know the name of John Hanson at all, it is not for his Revolutionary War accomplishments and call for independence, but rather for the stretch of U.S. 50 that wanders through Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

Hanson was born in 1721 in Mulberry Grove, Charles County, into a prominent family whose marriages would connect them to such gentry as the Briscoes, Jenifers and Stones.

His father was a planter, land speculator, county official and delegate to the Maryland General Assembly, a career path that he would follow.

Hanson began his political career in 1750 when he was appointed sheriff. Seven years later, when he was 36, he was elected to the House of Delegates in Annapolis, where for 12 years he represented Charles County.

"Money and finance were Hanson's specialties in the House. He quickly allied with [the party] that opposed proprietary privilege and was to grow into that state's revolutionary movement," The Evening Sun said in a 1987 article.

Why Hanson decided to move to Frederick County in 1769 when he was appointed deputy surveyor remains unclear, with some scholars suggesting perhaps his tobacco plantation was producing less, a common problem among tobacco farmers in the era before crop rotation.

He continued to play an important role in Maryland politics while living in Frederick and was elected to all conventions that ruled the state between 1774 to 1777.

On June 17, 1776, at a meeting where he was presiding, Hanson called for Maryland to vote for independence.

Hanson was one of five Maryland delegates elected to the Continental Congress in 1779, and he immediately immersed himself in committees working on finances and supplies.

He was in Philadelphia in 1781 when Maryland became the last state to ratify the Articles of Confederation after a dispute over ownership of western lands was finally resolved.

Hanson and Daniel Carroll signed the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781, for Maryland.

Hanson was 60 when he was elected the first president of the Congress on Nov. 5, 1781, yet had little real executive authority. Presidents under the Articles served one-year terms.

He was suffering from poor health, had recently lost his one remaining daughter and wanted to return to Frederick, but considered it his patriotic responsibility to remain in Philadelphia.

In a letter written Nov. 30, 1781, George Washington congratulated his friend for being elected to "the most important seat in the United States."

Because the Articles of Confederation failed to provide for a strong central government, the Congress could not levy taxes, pay the public debt or raise an army or navy in defense of the country.

During the ferociously hot summer of 1787, Washington led the Constitutional Convention, whose avowed purpose was to revise the Articles of Confederation, and what emerged was the Constitution and our present national government. Washington was the first president of the United States under the new form of government that had an executive branch.

Hanson's other accomplishments include issuing the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1782 while serving as president of "the united states assembled." He also presided over legislation that established the first central bank, Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Great Seal of the United States.

Hanson stepped down in 1782. He died Nov. 15, 1783, in Oxon Hill, Prince George's County, and was buried in the Addison Graveyard there.

"Thus ended the career of one of America's greatest statesmen," opined the Maryland Gazette on Nov. 21, 1783. "While hitherto practically unknown to our people, and this is true as to nearly all the generations that have lived since this day, his great handiwork, the nation which he helped to establish, remains as a fitting tribute to his memory."

Since 1903, a 7-foot-3-inch bronze statue of Hanson has stood in the U.S. Capitol with a statue of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

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