The President, more than any other figure, has become emblematic of the American experiment. From humble beginnings, the office has become synonymous with august power itself.
The Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military force in human history. The ‘Leader of the Free World’ and America’s representative on the world stage. The de facto leader of whatever party he belongs to. The Chief Executive of the largest employer in the country, who can mold and bend countless federal policies with a stroke of his pen.
Their faces dominate our currency, their figures tower over our most famous national monuments. They loom large in our imagination — they dominate casual discussions of our politics. The average American may not be able to name the three branches of government, but even the most politically illiterate citizen can usually name the sitting president.
But for all that pomp and circumstance, I’d wager that almost no one would be able to tell me the name of America’s first president.
Don’t believe me? Well, if you say it’s George Washington, you are mistaken.
The United States declared its independence on July 4, 1776, yet Washington did not take office until April 30, 1789. The Continental Congress that would declare independence was formed on September 5th, 1774.
Washington would serve as America’s first Commander-in-Chief for the duration of the Revolutionary War, but during those formative years 14 men would preside over the fledgling government as it stumbled, fled, and failed to supply Washington and his army, leaving the nation’s soldiers frozen and half-starved at Valley Forge. Yet, for all its dysfunction, this was the government that would best the British, win the critical favor of the French and Dutch, and emerge victorious over the greatest empire the world had ever seen.
So, on this Presidents’ Day, I would like to take a moment to salute the valiant efforts of the forgotten Presidents, whose existence has largely been confined to the realm of trivia.
Peyton Randolph, Henry Middleton, John Hancock, Henry Laurens, John Jay, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKeen, John Hanson, Elias Boudinot, Richard Henry Lee, Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair and Cyrus Griffin.
Why, then, have the memories of these men been confined to the pedantic ramblings of overeducated columnists?
Well, the President of the Continental Congress was not anything like the modern office of the President.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the President was not the head of a separate branch of government — he was selected by the Congress from among the Congress, and his role was largely ceremonial. He presided over the Congress, and moderated debate, and seldom served for more than a year at a time. He did not set the agenda, he had no control over committees assignments, and he certainly was not given control of the troops.
The members of the founding generation were extremely skeptical of strong executive authority — after all, weren’t they rebelling against a corrupt and tyrannical king, and a system that concentrated far too much power in the hands of a single man? These were people who deeply feared the dangers posed to liberty by the mere existence of a standing army, the last thing they were going to do was vest the entire federal bureaucracy in one person.
The Articles, to be fair, didn’t have many powers to vest. It had no power to tax, and relied on the voluntary contributions of its member states. It had no virtually power to regulate the internal affairs of the states, no power to regulate commerce between them, no power to amend its basic bylaws without the unanimous consent of all states. It could raise armies would sometimes finance, take on debt which the states may deign to repay, and negotiate treaties with any foreign government that would take them seriously. Barring some existential crisis, the first federal government couldn’t do much of anything.
The Presidency was a do nothing job in a do nothing organization.
And in fairness, for a while it sort of worked. But, as the fledgling republic came of age in a time of peace, the wartime pressures that had held to ramshackle structure together faded away and the hollow edifice threatened to crumble. America couldn’t pay back its debts, America couldn’t provide benefits to its former troops, America couldn’t prevent legal disputes between rival states.
Economic dislocation and open rebellion threatened to bring the whole thing down.
So, in the summer of 1787, the beleaguered Continental Congress authorized a Constitutional Convention to iron out some reforms and see if the Articles of Confederation could be salvaged.
The Convention was a mess. One state, Rhode Island, refused to send any delegates at all. About a third of the delegates who were appointed didn’t show up. The 55 men who did show up, however, were among the most highly educated, politically seasoned, materially successful men in the country: most of them had served in Congress, several had been state governors, and many had been in government since the Revolutionary days.
Described by their contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, as a ‘Council of Demigods’, these titans of law, commerce, finance and industry crowded together in a small assembly hall in Philadelphia, with the windows closed so that eavesdroppers couldn’t listen, and over the course of an agonizing hot and muggy summer with no air conditioning, tried to see if they could salvage this thing.
Tensions were high. One of the first conclusions drawn by the convention was that the Articles were broken beyond salvation and the only way forward was to start over from scratch. To be clear, these men who had spent years of their blood, sweat and tears to create this nation looked at the first draft of the American Republic and said ‘we can keep the name.’
There were many controversial issues debated at the convention — the structure of Congress, the balance of power between the federal government and the states, and that ever fatal issue of slavery.
But the nature of the executive, and what would become the Presidency, was among the most loaded issues of all.