Like every legislative body, the Articles of Confederation Congress had a presiding officer, styled “The President of the United States, in Congress Assembled”.
The grandiose title might lead one to believe that the gentlemen who held the role were Presidents of the United States, like George Washington and his successors, but with a few extra words in their title. They were not. The authors of the Articles of Confederation referred to Congress itself as “the United States, in Congress assembled”. The nation, then as now, was the United States of America.
The President of Congress was just that—the presiding officer of a legislative body. He was not the “President of the United States”. Any source listing the Presidents of Congress as predecessors to George Washington is incorrect.
Even by presiding officer standards, the Presidents of Congress were weak. The Articles term-limited the President to serve no more than one year out of any three. The rules of Congress denied the President power to appoint committees, assign bills to committees, set the agenda, or perform any of the actions associated with legislative leadership.
As the closest thing in the federal government to a Head of State, the Presidents did perform some ceremonial tasks such as receiving ambassadors, hosting dinners, and signing and receiving correspondence. From 1781, the President was allowed a private secretary and steward to assist with these functions.
Even here, however, the Presidents’ powers were circumscribed. In an extreme example, Congress (1778) spent four days debating and scripting a four-paragraph speech that President Henry Laurens addressed to the French ambassador. President Thomas McKean (1781) wrote to George Washington that he would transmit relevant acts of Congress to Washington “without comment”, because of “my doubts of the propriety (as President) of doing otherwise”.
Congress elected the Presidents by secret written ballot, and the tallies were not recorded in the Journals. We know little about how hotly the elections were or were not contested, except where members dropped hints in private correspondence. Nine individuals held the office during the eight-year period of the Articles of Confederation, with two persons elected but refusing to serve. Here are their stories:
1. Samuel Huntington of Connecticut (right) had been elected President in September, 1779, and continued to serve, without a new election, after the Articles were ratified on March 1, 1781. Huntington was a self-made lawyer who was associated with the radical, anti-nationalist, anti-mercantile faction in Congress. He nonetheless presided over the creation of the executive departments, which strengthened the national government, and the passage of the impost (see Finances), which would have strengthened it further. Huntington resigned because of ill health effective July 9, 1781.
2. On that day Congress elected Samuel Johnston of North Carolina as his replacement, but Johnston declined to serve. He complained that he had “no prospect of being relieved or supplyed with money for my expenses” and decamped from Congress altogether five days later. The day after this embarrassing refusal, Congress elected Thomas McKean of Delaware (left). In an example of the symbiotic relationship between Pennsylvania and Delaware at the time, McKean served as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania at the same time as being a delegate to Congress from Delaware. He left Congress to return to his Chief Justice duties in November 1781.
3. In November 1781, the legislative year of the Articles of Confederation (beginning the first Monday in November) took effect for the first time. From this point forward Congress would elect a new President as soon as a quorum assembled each November, with the one-year term limit requiring a new election every year. On November 5, 1781, Congress elected John Hanson of Maryland (right). Hanson, a wealthy planter and merchant, was a centrist, and presided over the chartering of the first national bank.
4. On November 4, 1782, Congress elected Elias Boudinot of New Jersey (left). Boudinot (not to be confused with the Cherokee Indian editor who admired him and adopted his name) was a nationalist lawyer who had served during the Revolutionary War in the thankless role of Commissary of Prisoners. He presided over the ratification of the preliminary peace treaty with Great Britain and the passage of the impost of 1783 (see Finances), but also over the humiliating Congressional flight from Philadelphia to Princeton (see Where Was the National Capital?).
5. Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania (right) won election to the Presidency on November 3, 1783. Mifflin was a wealthy merchant who had served as Quartermaster General during the war. The early months of his presidency were consumed with the struggle to raise the nine-state quorum necessary to ratify the final peace treaty with Great Britain; afterward, Congress adjourned in June, bringing an early end to Mifflin’s responsibilities.
6. On November 30, 1784, Congress mustered a quorum (nearly a month late), and elected Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (left) as President after “seven or eight ballotings”. This was a defeat for nationalists, as the Lee family were leaders of the radical anti-mercantile faction. Lee’s tenure saw Congress relocate permanently to New York, pass the first ordinance to survey and sell the Northwest, and order the mail to be carried by stagecoach.
7. John Hancock of Massachusetts achieved more notoriety than any other President of Congress, either before or after the Articles were ratified, by splashing his name so prominently onto the Declaration of Independence in 1776. His second tenure, after the Articles were ratified, was less glamorous. In fact, it was no tenure at all, because he never served. Congress elected Hancock, who was a delegate from Massachusetts but not in attendance, on November 23, 1785, even though one delegate complained that “it was surely improper to play the risquing game” because it was “much doubted” whether Hancock would accept the office. Hancock stalled, writing that he would take office “as soon as I can arrange my affairs here” in Boston. He never did. Congress made do with interim chairmen. Finally, on June 6, 1786, Hancock sent in a letter of resignation, and Congress elected Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts (right) to serve out his term. Gorham’s brief tenure was consumed by the conflict over a possible treaty with Spain (see The Treaty That Wasn't).
8. On February 2, 1787, Congress assembled a quorum nearly three months late and elected Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania (left) as President. St. Clair had been a career military man until entering politics after the Revolutionary War. His tenure featured the passage of the Northwest Ordinance, although St. Clair was absent on the days when it was debated and adopted. Congress subsequently appointed St. Clair as the first Governor of the Northwest Territory which the ordinance created. His tenure was not entirely happy; while serving as Governor he was commissioned to rejoin the army and lead an expedition against American Indians, which ended in a disastrous defeat in November 1791.
9. On January 22, 1788 Congress elected Cyrus Griffin of Virginia (right) as its last President. Griffin had earlier served as a federal judge on the Court of Appeal in Cases of Capture, and he was reappointed by George Washington to the federal bench after his term as President was over. His Presidency saw the ratification of the Constitution, and Congressional activity revolved around the struggle over where to locate the new government which would meet in 1789.
Sources: Jennings B. Sanders, The Presidency of the Continental Congress 1774-1789: A Study in American Institutional History, 1930; Calvin Jillson and Rick K. Wilson, Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774-1789, 1994; Letters of Delegates to Congress
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