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To: H-NET/OIEAHC Electronic Association in Early American Studies <H-OIEAHC@H-NET.MSU.EDU> X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 5.00.2615.200 Delivered-to: H-OIEAHC@H-NET.MSU.EDU Original-recipient: rfc822;firstname.lastname@example.org I respond to Prof. Holly Meyer's message expressing alarm about the view that John Hanson of Maryland is being identified as the first president of the United States. Ever since the day, some years ago, when I received a call in my office from the Ballard Fire Department (Ballard, a fishing community, is now incorporated within Seattle) asking me to adjudicate on the matter of "who was the first president of the United States" and confirm that it was Hanson, his name has continued to figure in my lectures on the 1780s. Why so? I will admit my first reaction to the query was professional gratification, that this is the kind of issue that fire department personnel were discussing in between fighting fires and brewing chili. My second was to resort to the books, especially Richard Morris' trenchant paragraph in his The Forging of the Union, p. 107-8, which identifies him as taking office as President of Congress at the start of the federal year provided by the newly-ratified Articles of Confederation. But Morris also points out that two men, Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKean, preceded Hanson as presidents under the new government--and that a stronger case for first holding an office as president could be made for Peyton Randolph, president of the first two continental congresses, or John Hancock, president of Congress at the time of its declaration of independence. Nor was the congressional president's powers or role at all comparable to those first assumed by George Washington. So I agree with Professor Meyer that, on several counts, it's very misleading to claim Hanson as first president. I think the achievements attributed to him on the website she cites are grossly exaggerated. Yet Hanson and the Ballard Fire Department continue to appear in my lectures. The reasons are both parochial and pedagogical. Ballard is a proudly Scandinavian community that has insisted on putting up a statue of Leif Erikson to counter those of Columbus, and no small part of the boosting of Hanson is due to the fact that he was one of the few persons of known Scandinavian origin to have played a prominent role in the Revolution. This can then tie in, building on the fine work of Michael Kammen, to talking about the Revolution in historical memory and noting how just about every ethnic group has come to identify a figure--be it Lafayette, Attucks, von Steuben, Kosciusko, etc.--that gives it a stake in the Revolution. Likewise the claim for the role of the Iroquois Confederacy in shaping the Federal Constitution. In addition, I believe that discussing the Hanson claim does help to point out that the title of "president" had modest, pre-1790 origins and by no means carried the connotations it has come to have in more recent years. Finally, telling the story of Hanson serves as a reminder that there were United States before there was a United States (and they continue to be plural in the Federal Constitution). Government under the Articles proved to be the road not taken, but it shouldn't be forgotten, either as an important stage in the Revolution or in light of the continued importance of the tradition of anti-federalism in the United States. For all these reasons, I am not as alarmed as Professor Meyer at the longevity of the Hanson story. It's just one amid a host of such stories that testify to the vitality of Americans' engagement with their history. One should correct it, given the chance, but (I believe) it provides us with a great opportunity to follow Sam Adams' advice and "wisely to improve [upon] it." Richard Johnson, University of Washington