You are here:

U.S. History/First American President


It is widely taught and considered without much question that George Washington was the first president of the United States. However, under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, a title was given to a number of individuald at different times of "President of the United States of Congress". This includes John Hancock and the reason his signature is so large on the Declaration of Independence. He was "President" at that time. What consideration is given to these men as presidents of the United States?

Back when the American Revolution began, there was no  mechanism to create any governmental body that had any legal standing.  A group of people opposing the King's practices formed the "Continental Congress" which were leading men who went to confer with other colonies to discuss ways to resist British policies.

The Second Continental Congress was still running the resistance when the conlonies approved the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  However, at this point, it was seen that each of the thirteen colonies would become independent nations.  The Continental Congress was more of a regional UN where representatives of each country got together to discuss coordination of the war effort and other matters.

The delegates selected a person to preside over Congress in order to help keep order.  The men who held this job were as follows:

Peyton Randolph (September 5, 1774 - October 21, 1774)
Henry Middleton (October 22, 1774 - May 10, 1775)
Peyton Randolph (May 10, 1775 - May 23, 1775) (same as #1)
John Hancock (May 24, 1775 - October 30, 1777)
Henry Laurens (November 1, 1777 - December 9, 1778)
John Jay (December 10, 1778 - September 27, 1779)
Samuel Huntington (September 28, 1779 - February 28, 1781)

The Colonies became independent "States" in 1776 while Hancock was President, but even then, the Congress was not an official government body.  Rather, each State was an independent nation.

By 1781 as the war was winding down, the various States decided to maintain a permanent group that would coordinate common issues among them.  They created the Articles of Confederation, which among other things, noted that the Continental Congress had a presiding officer (called a
"President" because he "presided" over Congress) and that no one could serve as President for more than a period of one year.

The Articles were ratified in March 1, 1781.  At that time, Samuel Huntington was still the President of Congress.  He retired a few months later and was replaced by Thomas McKean.

John Hanson, the third man to hold the job after the ratification of the Articles, is often credited with being the first elected "President" because he was the first elected (by his fellow delegates) to a full term under the
Articles.  He used the title "President of the United States in Congrss Assembled."

The full list of presiding officers is listed below:

Samuel Huntington (March 1, 1781 - July 6, 1781)
Thomas McKean (July 10, 1781 to November 4, 1781)
John Hanson (November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782)
Elias Boudinot (November 4, 1782 to November 3, 1783)
Thomas Mifflin (November 3, 1783 to June 3, 1784)
Richard Henry Lee (November 30, 1784 to November 23, 1785)
John Hancock (November 23, 1785 to June 6, 1786)
Nathaniel Gorham (June 6, 1786 to November 13, 1786)
Arthur St. Clair (February 2, 1787 to October 29, 1787)
Cyrus Griffin (January 22, 1788 to March 4, 1789)

Now even though the office was called "President" this person did not have the powers we associate with a modern president.  He was more like the Speaker of the House.  His main role was to keep order in Congress.  He had no executive authority beyond presiding over Congress.

It was not until the Constitution was put in place in 1789 that the President had the powers we know today.  The first person to hold that office, of course, was George Washington.

As to what consideration is given to these men?  Well, they are all revered as founding fathers, but probably the only one of then who is remembered for his role in prsiding over Congress in John Hancock because of his role during the Declaration of Independence.  John Jay is also remembers for later being Chief Justice, Ambassador to Britain, and one of the writers of the Federalist Papers.  The rest are rather obscure figures who played relatively minor roles.

I hope this helps!
- Mike  

U.S. History

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Michael Troy


I can answer just about any question on early American History. My specialties are the American Revolution through the Civil War/Reconstruction. I also have greater expertise in matters relating to military, political or legal history.


I have lectured at George Washington University regarding the Civil War, as well as several elementary school Civil War demonstrations. I was also a member of a Civil War reenactment group for about 10 years.


J.D. University of Michigan B.A. George Washington University

Awards and Honors
Truman Scholar

©2017 All rights reserved.