History is not like other sciences. Events can be interpreted differently by different historians. Versions of history contained in textbooks seem to change to accommodate current political trends. And, in some cases, historical facts are determined by a general consensus.
This variable nature of history has always interested me, partly, I admit, because of my fondness for trivia. This article could be called trivia but I hope to use it in a way to give you food for thought.
Let me set the stage by asking a question; "Who was the first president of the United States?"
Before you answer I want to briefly describe one of the unusual, and often humorous, events that happened to me years ago when my business kept me on frequent out of town trips. One night I was seated at the bar in an upscale restaurant waiting for a table. Two distinguished looking gentlemen seated adjacent to me were engaged in a heated discussion, gesturing and raising their voices. Suddenly, the man beside me wheeled toward me and blurted;
"Who was the first king of France?"
After a startled laugh, I assured him that I had no idea who the first king of France was. Ignoring my answer, the other man wagged a finger at me; "It was Clovis!" he said firmly. Shaking his head, his companion stated, "No! It was Merovech!" Then both eyed me expectantly, waiting for a decision. Again, I pled ignorance. Finally, peeved by my deficient education, they turned away and resumed their argument.
These were two serious Francophiles. Their conversation was sprinkled with French and they frequently quoted the Larousse. But they couldn’t agree on the identity of France’s first king. Later, I put the question to a history professor I knew. After a thoughtful pause, he said; "I would pick Clodian," and then immediately qualified his answer by explaining that, before you can determine the first king, you must decide when France evolved from a collection of tribes into a nation. This decision, which could vary from historian to historian, is subject to change as additional research uncovers new information.
I have never discovered who the first king of France was, but I have learned how tenuous history can be, especially when describing events that occurred over a century ago; even when there is documentation available.
So, who was your choice for the first president of the United States? I guess many of you named George Washington. But some of you probably hesitated. Since the question was so easy, you felt there had to be a catch. You suspected that I was going to dredge up some technicality to prove that George Washington wasn’t actually our first president.
Well, yes. But not so much a technicality as an historical judgment. Before we can determine who the first president of the United States was, we must decide — When did the United States become the United States? It wasn’t the United States prior to 1776 when the thirteen colonies issued the Declaration of Independence. However, about that time the colonies began to refer to themselves as states and those who signed the Declaration of Independence described themselves as "Representatives of the united States of America." Although "the united States" they referred to might be interpreted as simply a description and not a formal designation.
As soon as the States became independent, they began devising a formalized structure to operate under. But they were determined not to create a powerful central authority that could become as oppressive as the British Monarchy they had opposed. They recognized the need for a Congress, a central governing body, but were adamant that Congress and the States should be "coequal" — a "dual sovereignty." To accomplish this goal, they drafted the "Articles of Confederation." Learned men who chose their words carefully wrote these Articles. Their language is precise and their statements mean exactly what they say. The document they crafted refers to a "Confederacy"; a voluntary league of states. Article I names the Confederacy, "The United States of America."
The Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1,1781. The document created the office of president to be appointed by a Committee of the States and limited to a term of one year. Presidential duties involved presiding over the United States in Congress Assembled, executing laws, treaties, and military orders, including military commissions, receiving foreign dignitaries, assembling and adjourning Congress, and other routine functions required by the office. A new president, John Hanson of Maryland, was selected on November 5th. Hanson served a one-year term that ended on November 4, 1782. From 1782 until 1789, when George Washington took the oath of office, seven more presidents were chosen. And, therefore, George Washington was actually our ninth president.
These first eight presidents were among the best and the brightest of the early founders. The first, John Hanson, made the most of his twelve months in office. He established the Great Seal of the United States; created the first Treasury Department, Foreign Affairs Department and the Secretary of War. President Hanson removed all foreign troops and foreign flags from America and designated the fourth Thursday of every November a Thanksgiving Day holiday.
The fourth president was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s grandfather. He was one of most famous orators in Congress and he was the one who introduced the resolution calling for a formal declaration of independence from England. His resolution was adopted and Lee was selected to head the committee to draft the document. However, an illness in his family made it necessary for him to return home indefinitely so the task was given to his friend and fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.
Arthur St. Clair, president number seven, issued the Northwest Ordinance that annexed the Northwest Territory for future settlements. St. Clair also created a Confederation Convention for the purpose of correcting deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation. The revised Articles became the United States Constitution. The new Constitution changed not only the presidential election process but also expanded the scope of the presidency beyond the duties prescribed for the original eight.
But wait a minute. In addition to these eight presidents, we mustn’t ignore Samuel Huntington who served as president from March 1, 1781 to July 6, 1781. Nor should we leave out Thomas McKean, who was president from July 10, 1781 until John Hanson assumed the office. These two additional presidents would make General Washington our eleventh president.
And, of course, there were presidents who served before the Articles of Confederation were officially adopted. How could we not mention John Hancock who held the office of president from 1776 to 1777? Hancock had the honor of serving as president a second time from 1785 to 1786, one of the eight presidents mentioned above. Henry Laurens, the only American president to be confined to the Tower of London, succeeded him and held the office from 1777 to 1778. After Laurens, John Jay served as president from 1778 to 1779. Samuel Huntington became president in 1779. However, his term in office was continued after the Articles of Confederation were formally adopted so we shouldn’t count him twice. But these three additional presidents would make George Washington number 14.
Reasonable people could disagree on whether or not the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of the United States. On the other hand, there is nothing ambiguous about the language of the Articles of Confederation. With the ratification of this document the united States officially became the "United States."
The proceedings held to revise the Articles of Confederation produced a lengthy and often emotional debate between those who wanted a strong central government and those who wanted to continue the loose association of states. George Washington presided over these often passionate deliberations and it took a major effort on his part to maintain order among the delegates.
The Articles of Confederation clearly stated that any alteration must be approved by all thirteen states. Advocates for a strong central government knew it would be difficult to get unanimous agreement for the radical changes they wanted to make. The story of how they transformed the Articles of Confederation into the U.S. Constitution involves America’s "skeleton in the closet" or what James Madison called the "delicate truths" of the negotiations.
When the revised document, the Constitution, became effective, and George Washington took office, only eleven states had ratified it. The revision would not have been legal under the constraints of the Articles. Therefore some states had to withdraw — I prefer the word secede — from the Confederacy of states. Once they seceded, they could revise the Articles without the approval of all 13 states. On the other hand, if they had remained in the Confederacy, the language of the Articles bound them and, consequently, the Constitution would not have been a legal document.
Their de facto secession allowed them to circumvent the stipulations of the Articles without appearing to do so. The ploy used was to insert language into the new Constitution that permitted its adoption after only nine states ratified it. James Madison refers to this ruse, as using "informal and unauthorized propositions" and this is what he meant by the "delicate truths" of the ratification proceedings.
Madison and the others who favored a strong central government felt that achieving their ultimate goal was important enough to justify bending the rules. Madison wrote, "forms ought to give way to substance" and "the means should be sacrificed to the end, rather than the end to the means." After essentially admitting that they had acted ultra vires (beyond their authority), Madison took his justification a step further, and in a revealing statement, he affirmed the "precious right of the people to abolish or alter their governments as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
Although the new Constitution made major changes to the Articles of Confederation, some provisions were simply reworded. Article II of the original document specified that states have all the rights and sovereignty that are not expressly forbidden by the Articles of Confederation. This is basically the same language that is used in Amendment X which clarifies earlier Constitutional references to state sovereignty. None of the language in either the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution forbids states to secede. Those who claim it does, rely on an implied interpretation, while those who claim it doesn’t use an explicit interpretation.
More than a year after its ratification and Washington’s inauguration, the thirteenth state finally approved the Constitution. Because he was the first president to take an oath to support this new Constitution, General George Washington, by consensus if not by fact, is considered to be the first president of the United States.
Although Washington’s status as our first president is an historical judgment, I’m happy to accept it. In addition to being an outstanding General and war hero, he was a true statesman. George Washington was revered by his associates as well as the citizens of the United States, who returned him to office for a second term. He would have been easily elected for a third term but he refused to run again. And his farewell address wisely warned us about "foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues."