On this day in 1783, John Hanson, the first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, dies in his home state of Maryland. Hanson is sometimes called the first president of the United States, but this is a misnomer, since the presidency did not exist as an executive position separate from Congress until the federal Constitution created the role upon its ratification in 1789.
Hanson was the self-educated son of Charles County, Maryland, farmers. His family had lived in Maryland for three generations beginning with the emigration from England of his grandfather, for whom he was named. At age 25, John married 16-year-old Jane Contee in Maryland. Their lasting union produced nine children, five of whom survived to adulthood, although their son Peter was later killed in action as a Continental soldier at Fort Washington, New York, in November 1776.
Hanson’s political career began in 1757 with his election to the Maryland Colonial Assembly. He returned to represent Charles County again from 1758-1763, 1765, 1766 and 1768-1769. As colonial-British relations frayed, Hanson took a seat in the revolutionary Annapolis Convention, which took control of the colony from the British in 1774 and renamed itself the Assembly of Freemen in 1776. An outspoken supporter of the Patriot cause, Hanson was instrumental in Maryland’s decision to back the rebels laying siege to British-controlled Boston in the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord.
Named a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779, Hanson served in that body from 1780 to 1782, including a term as the president of Congress (a position similar to that of prime minister in the British Parliament) from 1781 to 1782, during which time the Articles of Confederation were finally ratified and General George Washington defeated the British army at Yorktown, Virginia. Upon the ratification of the Articles on March 1, 1781, the Continental Congress became the “Congress of the Confederation” or the “United States in Congress Assembled.” Hanson was the first president of that body, but not of the United States.