By now, many people know that Christopher Columbus was probably not the first man to discover America. If you’ve delved further into historical inaccuracies, you’d know that George Washington’s Cherry Tree story, Charles Darwin being the ‘first-conceiver’ of the Theory of Evolution, and Thomas Edison being the inventor of the light bulb are also proven fallacies.
But everyone certainly knows the fact that George Washington to be the first President of the United States. He transitioned from being perhaps our country’s greatest wartime leader to serving two Presidential terms from 1789 to 1797. In fact, Washington was elected by unanimous choice, having been the only President to receive 100 percent of the Electoral College votes in both of his elections!
But Washington wasn’t the first President. In my book, that honor goes to a man by the name of Samuel Huntington. Huntington didn’t have the luxury of having a good public relations man, until perhaps now. I start my case by going back in time into some well-known American history.
On September 5, 1774, the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It consisted of fifty-six delegates from twelve of the thirteen Colonies, including notable statesmen such as George Washington, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Adams, and Benjamin Harrison. The Continental Congress served as the governing body of the Colonies during the American Revolution. After the British soldier’s blockade of Port of Boston, a response to the Boston Tea Party protest, it was formed by Benjamin Franklin in 1773.
Upon the Revolutionary War breaking out in April of 1775, the Continental Congress established the Continental Army and appointed George Washington from Virginia as its Commander. Later that year came the creation of the Continental Navy and Continental Marines. The earliest and most humble beginnings of today’s structured military.
In 1776, when the war was in full swing, the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Shortly thereafter, they began drafting the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, most commonly known as the Articles of Confederation. Once complete, the approved version was sent to the thirteen states for their acceptance or ratification in November of 1777.
The purpose of the Articles of Confederation was to create a single union of the states in order to secure joint freedom, sovereignty, and independence from England. Some of its key points were that it:
- Established the name of the new country (Confederation) as the United States of America.
- Asserted the sovereignty of each state.
- Created a common friendship and a mutual reliance between the states, in case assistance for defense was needed.
- Set the parameters that the confederation government was the only entity that could affect foreign political and commercial relations or declare war.
- Stated that expenditures made by the confederation government would have to be funded by the states.
- Stipulated that the Articles could only become ratified if all thirteen states agreed upon its terms.
Many Americans do not know that we began having Presidents of the Continental Congress starting in 1774. In fact, there were many separate Presidents, all of whom served for 14 years, up until 1788. George Washington was elected thereafter and began serving under the newly formed U.S. Constitution in 1789.
According to Bill Stanley, a Norwich, CT native who was a stock analyst, political state senator and headed up the Norwich Historical Society:
”I’m not knocking George, but the fact that no one is paying attention doesn’t make wrong right. You don’t think Columbus discovered America, do you? But he gets credit for it. Well, George Washington was the father of our country. He was maybe the greatest American who ever lived. And he was the 11th president.”
To say that the Presidents in these pre-Washingtonian years had limited powers would be accurate. Some political historians state that their position today would be akin to the Speaker of the House. Nonetheless, these men presided over the earliest form of central government in the year preceding and just at the creation of our country.
There were six Congressional Presidents before the Articles of Confederation were formally agreed upon or ratified by all the states. These men included notables such as John Jay, who would later serve as the first Supreme Court justice, and the great American patriot John Hancock, who served as President during the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But it was Samuel Huntington who was President of the Congress at perhaps its most pivotal time – when our thirteen states became a recognized union and established the United States of America.
The Articles of Confederation were sent out in full draft to all thirteen states on November 15, 1777 during the term of Congressional President Henry Laurens from South Carolina. It would take until March 1, 1781 for all thirteen states to ratify the agreement, allowing for the ‘perpetual union’ of the United States of America to become officially created. The Continental Congress then became known as the Congress of the Confederation.
Years later, a fiery Abraham Lincoln was involved in what was described as a constitutional crisis when he gave his ‘special message to Congress’ on July 4, 1861. Many of the southern states, including several of the original colonies, were wishing to secede from the United States or ‘Union’.
The problem was that there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prohibited any state from seceding without consent. Lincoln realized that the strength and beauty of the United States lay in the fact that they were, in fact, ‘United’. Even a single state’s secession would not only affect America’s stability internally, but also tarnish its dealings with the rest of the world.
In the speech, Lincoln set the basis for the Civil War by relating the case for continued unity of the states through the Articles of Confederation by stating:
“The express plighting of faith by each and all of the original thirteen in the Articles of Confederation, two years later, that the Union shall be perpetual is most conclusive.”
In other words, the creation of the United States was meant to perpetually bind all current and future states. If any state choosing to secede, even if it felt it was in the state’s best interest, it was technically choosing to take on act of rebellion and treason against the United States and its government.
Samuel Huntington was President of the Continental Congress during the time when the Articles of Confederation, or America’s first Constitution, was ratified and the collective thirteen states became a country. In my mind, this makes him the first President of the United States.
The Articles of Confederation failed within the first eight years. The Articles allowed each of the thirteen states to be quite independent, with the central government only responsible for the common defense, security of liberties, and the general welfare. These limited powers and provisions kept the national government purposely weak and kept strong, individualized state controls.
The states did not fully support the national government financially. Without such funds, the national government could not enforce its laws properly or fund a nationalized army. There was also no stable economy, as most states made their own money and the national government’s paper money went insolvent. There was also no true judicial system or ability to tax citizens. As America weakened, the Continental Congress went back to work and created the U.S. Constitution, setting the standard for the type of government we have today.
The U.S. Constitution or second Constitution of the United States provided for three branches of government (Executive, Judicial and Legislative), taxing powers, far stronger powers of the President, due process, the right to bear arms, protection against illegal search and seizure, and other Amendments in its Bill of Rights.
Those who argue that Washington was the first U.S. President point to the fact that the President of Congress was more of a presiding position, a position which held only limited executive and administrative functions. However, all Presidents under the U.S. Constitution did in fact have greater executive power and far greater significance in creating and deciding upon laws.
I would not deny that comparison. But it’s important to know that President Huntington presided over the Confederation Congress during a critical period in our country’s War for Independence. Even when the states took on heavy war losses from the British army, even when soldiers in the Continental Army regularly deserted to the British lines in each month of war – he was steadfastly committed to independence.
This was a bleak period for the United States, when past Continental Congress President Henry Middleton publicly proclaimed his allegiance back to the crown of England. Moreover, this was a time in which General Benedict Arnold’s plan for ceding West Point and the Hudson River to the British was discovered. Even George Washington wrote that during these times that “he had almost ceased to hope”.
Let’s also not forget that there were nine other Presidents of the Congress, other than Huntington, who preceded Washington as President. This makes ‘Dear Old George’ number eleven since the start of our country, not number one. But that could never sit well with historians who love to honor a popular hero.
Another point to make is one of power and legacy. There could be no denying that George Washington was not only a war hero and father of our country, but also had far more respect and reverence as President than Samuel Huntington did. After all, he was a President who was afforded far more power from the U.S. Constitution.
But why would a U.S. President need to have immense power or preside over the same form of government as we have today, in order to be deemed a President? Samuel Huntington was President of the governing body when the United States first became a country. Washington was President of that same country – just under a different Constitution.
Why is this any different from two kings of the same country having different types of government after a regime change? I’m not saying Washington wasn’t stronger, better and more well-liked than Huntington – I’m simply saying they were BOTH Presidents!
George Washington’s death in December of 1799 was a tremendous shock to the nation. They had lost their father and leader. Many people wore mourning clothes for several months straight.
Congressman Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, famously eulogized Washington:
“First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and enduring scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.
To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplary tender; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.
His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life—although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well-spent life. Such was the man America has lost—such was the man for whom our nation mourns.”
To put it bluntly, the country loved Washington. He appeared on the first paper money notes by as early as 1800, and by 1860 his face was permanently on the dollar bill. Our nation’s capital and the State of Washington are named for him. Even as late as 1976, President Gerald Ford issued an Executive Order promoting General Washington, who was a three-star General, to the rank of General of the Armies. This is the equivalent of a six-star General. Ford also stated that no officer would ever be able to outrank Washington.
Samuel Huntington left his Presidency in 1781 and went on to serve as the Governor of his home state of Connecticut for ten years, until his death in 1796. The town of Huntington, Connecticut is named for him. There are still those in Norwich, who like Stanley believe Huntington got the short end of the stick in historical appreciation.
However, Huntington did manage to get his face on printed money. He is one of forty-seven individuals located on the back of the $2 bill (see below). Tucked in pretty neatly and circled in red. Well, at least he got a seat at the table.
Perhaps this is the true difference between being President under different constitutions. Out with the old and in with the new!