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This Day in History: Elias Boudinot, President before George Washington?

On this day in 1740, an American Patriot is born. Did Elias Boudinot serve as President of the United States before George Washington did? Such claims are sometimes made.


Perhaps a little background is in order for this one.

In March 1781, the thirteen colonies approved a document called The Articles of Confederation. The Articles were, effectively, our first Constitution, and they governed certain interactions among the colonies.


Importantly, the Articles did not create an executive branch. Instead, Article IX of the Articles required Congress “to appoint one of their members to preside, provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year.”


When the Articles were ratified in 1781, Samuel Huntington was serving as President of the (then-existing) Continental Congress. He wasn’t replaced. Instead, he continued to serve as President of the new Confederation Congress, and the journals of Congress described him as such. Thus, he was the first President to serve under the Articles of Confederation.


His technical title was “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”


A few months into his term, he resigned. Thomas McKean was elected as a new President, and he served for a few months afterwards. In fact, when British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington in October 1781, Washington reported that surrender to McKean. However, McKean also resigned not too long afterwards. A new election was held: John Hanson was elected.


People sometimes say that Hanson was the first President under the Articles of Confederation. They even say that he was the first President of the United States! Neither claim is really true. Hanson was the first to serve an elected, one-year presidential term under the Articles, but both Huntington and McKean served before him. And Hanson was not a President of the United States. He was a President of the Confederation Congress under an entirely different Constitution than the one we have today. George Washington was the first President elected under the United States Constitution. He was also the first President elected to an independent, national, executive branch.


So, if Hanson was not the first President, then his successor, Boudinot, could not have been the second President. But, of course, none of these logistics change the fact that both men made significant contributions to our country, at a time when it was very much needed.


Boudinot was elected on November 4, 1782. A few days afterwards, he wrote a lengthy letter to his wife. He was clearly expecting to sacrifice his personal affairs—maybe even his financial well-being—to the job that he’d just taken. He sent numerous thoughts about how their personal affairs should be handled during his anticipated long absence. What emotion gripped him when he finally wrote: “You must prevail on Elisha to pay a most particular attention to my Business, or I shall be totally ruined”?


And yet, despite all these personal inconveniences, he took the job. Yet another unsung hero from our past.


Primary Sources:

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