Old Wives' Tales
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Toxin du jour
Claim: John Hanson was the first President of the United States of America.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2001]
Origins: A prime example of why history is best learned from history books, not comic books (or the modern equivalent, web sites of dubious validity).
John Hanson was not the "first president of the United States." John Hanson has not been purged from history books by a wave of revisionist historians who refuse to acknowledge his true importance to American history. The plain truth is that John Hanson was never considered "the first president of the United States," even in his own time. And John Hanson couldn't possibly have been the "first president of the United States," because neither the office of President of the United States nor the nation known as the United States of America was created until after he was dead.
When representatives of thirteen British colonies in North America, assembled in an organization known as the Continental Congress, declared in July 1776 that those colonies would henceforth be independent of Great Britain, they realized that unity would be necessary in order to sustain and win a war of independence (and to maintain that independence afterwards). Accordingly, they soon began debating the Articles of Confederation, a plan for a permanent union, which was approved and sent to each of the states (as the former colonies now called themselves) for ratification. Disputes over the several issues (including the western boundaries of some states) delayed the approval of the Articles of Confederation until 1781.
It is important to note that although both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation used the phrase "united states of America," neither of those documents was intended to create a single, unified country out of the thirteen former British colonies. Colonial leaders feared the creation of a too-powerful national government dominated by factions and so specifically refused to create a unified nation or to transfer sovereignty to a central government. Instead, they in effect created a national Congress to whom they could subcontract administrative tasks performed on behalf of all thirteen states: conduct foreign affairs, make war and peace, deal with Native Americans living outside the states, coin and borrow money, supervise the post office, and negotiate boundary disputes. Congress could not, however, raise money to carry out these tasks by levying taxes on the states, nor could it raise troops in order to defend the country or wage war, or even compel states to comply with the laws it passed. In short, the Articles of Confederation created a Congress extremely limited in authority, with insufficient power to carry out the duties assigned to it. Inevitably, Congress could neither pay off the war debt (because it could only print more paper currency, not raise money through taxation) nor protect the states' territories from encroachment by the Spanish and British (because it could not compel states to provide troops for the common defense); eventually the Confederation Congress lost much of what authority it had, often could not take legislative action because representatives had stopped attending meetings (thereby preventing the attainment of a quorum), and finally — out of money itself — transferred reponsibility for the national debt to the states in 1787. The Confederation government had been, in the words of George Washington, "little more than the shadow without the substance."
The key point here is that the Articles of Confederation did not create a nation called "the United States of America." They created, as stated in the first two articles, an alliance of thirteen independent and sovereign states who had agreed to "enter into a firm league of friendship with each other" while retaining their "sovereignty, freedom, and independence." The title of the confederacy so created was designated "The United States of America," but no nation with that name was created by the Articles of Confederation, any more than the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization resulted in the establishment of a nation known as "NATO."
The failure of the Articles of Confederation led to calls for establishment of a centralized federal government with much broader powers than the Congress of the Confederacy, a task accomplished through the drafting and ratification of a new Constitution in 1787-88. It was this Constitution, not the Articles of Confederation, that created the office of a chief executive as part of a truly federal government for the United States — an office bearing the title "President of the United States of America" and first filled by George Washington, unanimously selected as the first President in February 1789.
Sometimes historical figures are relegated to the background because societal attitudes have led to a minimalization of their accomplishments, leaving future generations to
The Articles of Confederation
Last updated: 20 October 2007
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