Tuesday, March 21, 2017

People: The First President

Who was John Hanson?

 The "Major Deegan Expressway" is a busy and famous road in the Bronx, named after someone nobody ever heard of. William Francis Deegan was a major in the Army  Engineers in WWI, renowned civil engineer and NY Democratic  politico.  Deegan also helped found The American Legion.

Suburban Washington, DC, has its own version of the "Major Deegan." In Maryland, there is a road called the "John Hanson Highway." The John Hanson Highway is actually US Route 50 heading east from the District towards Annapolis. Just as in the Bronx, I am sure the thousands of drivers who transit that road each day have no idea who John Hanson was. They would be amazed to learn it was named after the nation's first president!

John Hanson Highway

Early Life

John Hanson was born in Mulberry Grove, Charles County, Maryland on 2 April 1721. He was the son of a  planter of English ancestry. His grandfather, also named John, came to Charles County, Maryland as an indentured servant around 1661. In 1744 Hanson  married  a wealthy land owner (Martha Washington was no the only wealthy colonial woman to marry a future president). Within the decade Hanson had expanded the holding to over 1,300 acres. Also like Washington, Hanson entered public life. In 1750 he was elected sheriff and seven years later was elected to a seat in the Maryland Assembly. By all accounts he was a solid and efficient bureaucrat with a knack for finance.

Maryland Plantation

Political Strife

As friction between England and her colonies grew during the 1760s, Hanson identified with those who supported American grievances. Hanson publicly denounced the Stamp Act of 1765 and drew instructions for the first Maryland delegates attending the Stamp Act Congress in New York. In 1769, Hanson signed the Non-Importation Resolution adopted by Maryland to protest the Townshend Acts - a series of measures introduced into the English Parliament by Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend. The Townshend Acts of 1767 imposed duties on glass, lead, paints, paper and tea imported into the colonies.

Move West

Hanson moved to Frederick County in the western part of Maryland in that same year. He took up life as a merchant. But he did not forgo politics. Instead, he became involved in the "extra-legal" political activities protesting British policy. In a word, he became a rebel. In 1774 Hanson chaired a town meeting to protest the Coercive Acts, the series of laws  passed by the British Parliament to punish the colonies. Four of the acts were issued in direct response to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. The following year, Hanson went on record declaring that armed force might be necessary to resist British tyranny. Those were serious words that clearly placed him at the center of rebellion.

Coercive Acts were enacted in response to Boston's Tea Party

War Supplier

When armed conflict erupted in April 1775, Hanson used his fiscal expertise and organizational skills to help arm and equip soldiers of the Continental Army. As a result, soldiers from Frederick County were among the first soldiers to join General George Washington's army gathering at New York City. These were part of the famed First Maryland Regiment of the "Continental Line." Readers of the Yankee Doodle Spies series know that the main protagonist, Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed, was an officer leading a company from Frederick County as part of this esteemed outfit. The Marylanders, who made a gallant charge at the Battle of Long Island, were among the best equipped of Washington's soldiers - now we know it was thanks to one John Hanson.

Mark Maritato's  painting of the Maryland Line's gallantry on Long Island
(hangs in my office)

War Politician

Beginning in 1777, the people of Frederick sent Hanson back to the Maryland assembly for five consecutive terms. In 1779 he was appointed a delegate to the Continental Congress. In Philadelphia, Hanson was appalled by the sloppy administration of the war and their wasteful spending. He was an early supporter of a stronger government in the form of the Articles of Confederation. Now known as a weak central form of government, the Articles had many advantages and were in fact more authoritative than the unstructured Congresses that preceded it.  Hanson delayed formal support until Virginia and other states gave up their claims to western lands. Once he accomplished that, Hanson became an ardent advocate and was elected as the first "President of the United States in Congress assembled" on 5 November, 1781.

America's First President - John Hanson

Hanson's role was mostly ceremonial as under the Articles there was no executive. But he did oversee the day to day proceedings of the Congress. He corresponded with state governors, sent resolutions off to the various state assembles, and helped orchestrate legislative functions.  Peace talks were initiated with Britain under Hanson. And he developed the structure of managing government through departments. Arguably, Hanson's most memorable war act was to accept the sword of General Charles Cornwallis from the victorious General Washington in November in 1781.

Washington would present the sword Cornwallis surrendered
at Yorktown to President John Hanson

An Early Demise

Hanson was plagued by ill health and left his position after only one year as president when he resigned from office. John Hanson died on 15 November 1783, in Oxon County, Maryland, just ten days before the last British troops left New York City. Although not listed among the pantheon of "Founding Fathers," John Hanson can best be remembered as a highly trustworthy and efficient public servant and, technically, the nation's first president.

Statue of Hanson in Capitol's
 National Statuary Hall Collection

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