Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Lesson 3: Lost Hero: Was John Hanson Actually the First President?


The Lesson


On March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation, which had been passed by the Continental Congress in 1777, finally came into force with ratification by Maryland. On October 19 of the same year, British General Cornwallis surrendered a large army to General George Washington, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. Days later, the Continental Congress elected John Hanson of Maryland the "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" with no dissenting votes. On paper, the role was largely ceremonial, with its only specified duty being presiding over the Congress; however, some people believe Hanson was integral to a number of important actions. Many of the initiatives begun during Hanson's term in office were realized later when Washington was Chief Executive (for example, the census and Postal Service).

Guiding Questions

  • What important developments occurred during John Hanson’s term as the first full-term “President of the United States in Congress Assembled”?
  • How did they affect the future of the U.S. and the office of the President?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson in the unit, students will be able to:

  • Describe some of the actions of John Hanson in his role as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled."
  • List some of the problems and accomplishments that occurred under the Articles of Confederation.


Though there were serious weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation, it is undeniable that much was accomplished during John Hanson’s term as President. Review the accomplishments mentioned in the documents the students inspected in Lesson 2. (The first national Thanksgiving proclaimed, money secured in loans from foreign allies, a census undertaken, the establishment of a department for foreign affairs, Washington authorized to negotiate peace terms with the British. And there were, of course, accomplishments about which the students did not read, such as the establishment of a national postal system.)

If Hanson had been corrupt or inept, it’s unlikely so much would have been accomplished. However, it’s still difficult to ascertain from the Journals of the Continental Congress precisely how much credit John Hanson should get.

The handout "Documents for John Hanson's Term as President of the United States in Congress Assembled," on pages 3-8 of the PDF (see download instructions, above), uses very brief excerpts from the records of the Continental Congress. The documents are intended to represent a sample of the problems and accomplishments of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation during John Hanson's tenure as President. The interesting but relatively inconsequential question about Hanson's place in history serves in this lesson as a hinge into the more important question of the problems with the Articles of Confederation that eventually led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Investigating John Hanson

Guiding Discussion Questions:

Was the role of President symbolic or did it have some real power?

Was John Hanson the sort of person who would sit back and relish a symbolic role or would he have gotten involved?

Share with the class the following indicators, all available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, and encourage students to arrive at their own conclusions:

  • Before he became President, Hanson was involved in many committees of the Continental Congress. For example, a report in the handwriting of John Hanson appeared in the Journal of the Continental Congress for Thursday, November 1, 1781:
    The committee, ∥consisting of Mr. Hanson, Mr. Varnum, Mr. Clymer, ∥ to whom was referred a letter of September 1, from Major General Greene, with the copy of his letter to Colonel Campbell, and his commission to sundry persons to negotiate a treaty of peace with the Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians delivered in a report; Whereupon: Resolved, That the appointment of commissioners by Major General Greene to negotiate a treaty of peace with the Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians, and by that means to put a stop to the ravages of those nations, was a necessary and prudent measure, and that Congress approve of the same.
  • Students can search for “John Hanson” in the Journals of the Continental Congress to find what else Hanson did before and after becoming President.
  • After Hanson was elected President, he was congratulated by one of his colleagues. In a letter from George Washington to John Hanson dated November 30, 1781, Washington wrote, “I Congratulate your Excellency on your Appointment to fill the most important Seat in the United States.”
  • The record also contains a letter from John Hanson to his doctor Philip Thomas (written in Philadelphia Nov. 13th 1781). What does it indicate about the job of President and Hanson’s attitude?
    Dear Doctor.
    I was greatly disappointed in not receiving a letter from you by the post. I wrote you by the last post from home and Should have been very glad to have Known you had received it. The load of Business which I have very unwillingly And very imprudently taken on me I am afraid will be more than my Constitution will be Able to bear, And the form and Ceremony necessary to be observed by a President of Congress is to me Extreamly irksome, moreover I find my health declining and the Situation of my family requires my being at home. I Shall therefore take the first opportunity of applying for leave of Absence (In Hanson's hand)
    Despite being overwhelmed, discouraged, and in ill health (Hanson died about a year after the end of his term), Hanson did not take a leave of absence or resign, at the urging of his colleagues.
  • Though Hanson was directed by Congress to write many of the letters in the records of the Continental Congress, the wording is often Hanson’s. Students can review the following letter Asking the States to Provide the Troops They Promised. Is the tone in Hanson’s introduction forceful or does Hanson seem to be simply parroting the words of Congress (he mentions that he has enclosed the Act of Congress)?
    Sir, Circular. Philadelphia. 12th December 1781.
    Although the present aspect of (outlook for) American Affairs is truly favorable and opens to our view the brightest prospects of a glorious peace and the … possession of the … rights we have nobly dared to contend (fight) for, yet (but) a relaxation in our exertions (efforts) will not only be disgraceful, but may prove dangerous and even fatal to our liberties. Congress … have thought proper, by their Act of the 10th instant, a copy of which I have the honor of enclosing, to call upon the Legislature of each State, in the most pressing manner, to complete the Quota (the amount required for sending) of troops assigned to them …
  • There is a ceremonial aspect to the job of President. About halfway into Hanson’s term, the Congress decided exactly how the President would receive a minister of France. Does the procedure outlined by the Congress, which appears in the Journals of the Continental Congress for Tuesday, May 7, 1782, seem to indicate respect for Hanson? Though the plan is highly formalized, does it also depend on Hanson’s ability in any way?
    As the Minister enters, the President and the house shall rise, the President remaining covered, the Minister shall bow to the President and then to the house before he takes his seat. The President shall uncover his head as he returns his bow. The Minister shall then seat and cover himself; the members conducting him shall sit on each side of him. The members of the house shall seat themselves.

    When the Minister speaks, he shall rise; the President and house shall remain sitting till he has spoken and delivered his letter by his Secretary to the Secretary of Congress, who shall deliver it to be read by the interpreter in the original language. The interpreter shall then deliver a translation to be read by the Secretary of Congress, after which the President shall deliver his answer …
Was John Hanson the First President?

Review briefly some of the actions of the Continental Congress in which Hanson had a hand. Then share with the class the following brief online biographies. Take notes on the board or on chart paper as you add new information about Hanson. Take special notice of places where the accounts disagree (For example, the account on the website of the National Museum of American History, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia, emphasizes the ceremonial nature of the job whereas the Architect of the Capitol, a link from the EDSITEment reviewed website Congress Link, states that “Hanson was responsible for initiating a number of programs.”).

Now have students take a look at George Washington’s life in a slide show of George Washington’s Life and Times designed for middle- and high-school students on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Papers of George Washington. Using information about Hanson gleaned from the resources above and about Washington from the slide show and any other applicable sources, such as a social studies textbook, fill in the chart “Comparing Washington and Hanson” on page 9 of the Master PDF. Virtually every American recognizes George Washington, but few have heard of John Hanson. Does Hanson deserve more recognition?


Have each student choose one applicable comparison or contrast between Hanson and Washington, and then create one pair of “side-by-side” pages for a double biography or fact-book with comparable/contrasting stories/facts about Washington and Hanson on facing pages.

Some people believe Hanson, not Washington, should be considered the first President of the United States. Do students agree?

What would they offer as proof if they had to support the argument that Hanson was the first President?

Even if John Hanson was not the first President, does he deserve to be better known than he is?

As a homework assignment, challenge students to ask a parent or older sibling, “Who was the first President of the United States?” With the answer “George Washington,” students should offer evidence that it was actually John Hanson (whether or not students actually believe he was the first President). To prepare for the assignment in class, have students role play for the purpose of modeling the answer, and then, as a class, write out a short script students can use. If desired, have the family members sign and give the reason why they were/were not convinced that Hanson was the first President.

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)