Nobody was our President from July 4, 1776, to April 30, 1789.
Note: As I started to write my post about our first President, George Washington, it occurred to me that I was skipping over a big chuck of our nation’s history. Therefore, I’m starting off with this post on Nobody.
1776 was a long time ago. 238 years to be exact. With all that has transpired between now and then, it can be very easy to take a lazy view of history and assume that as July 4, 1776 is considered to be our nation’s birthday, that this is also when our current system of government sprung forth fully formed and George Washington assumed office. Not so much.
In actually, a period of twelve years, nine months, and 26 days passed between the US declaring its independence from Great Britain and George Washington assuming office. That means that “Nobody” was our President for longer than any of our actual Presidents, even FDR!
This doesn’t mean that our country was without leadership during this time. It’s just that this leadership was weak–not the leaders, per se, but the structure. The original colonies were striving to be free of the oppressive control of Great Britain, so it makes sense that they weren’t especially eager to construct their new country with a strong central government, as this could also be oppressive to the individual states.
So, at first, our governing body was the Continental Congress. The First Continental Congress met briefly in 1774 to address issue with Great Britain, then largely the same group (with a few exceptions) reconvened as the Second Continental Congress in 1775. It was this Congress that declared independence and was the de facto national government for most of the Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress was not designed to be the permanent governing body of the United States, so the members worked to set up the new government. The Congress passed the Articles of Confederation in 1777, but they didn’t go into effect until 1781, when the last state (Maryland) finally ratified them.
What the Articles of Confederation set up was a loose association of thirteen individual, sovereign states, or as the Articles state themselves, “a firm league of friendship.” The central government was very weak, have little power to do anything but conduct foreign policy. It only took a few years for folks to realize that this wasn’t working out too well. As it turns out, the members of this league of friendship weren’t so friendly when it came to things like interstate trade regulation, and the central government did not have enough authority to resolve the resulting conflicts. By 1786, it was officially recognized that something needed to be done. While the original plan was to revise the Articles of Confederation, they ended up being scrapped altogether and replaced with the US Constitution, which took effect on March 4, 1789. The following month, George Washington was inaugurated and we had our first official President!
I should point out here, that if you really wanted to, you could argue that the US was not without a president during this time frame. Some like to claim that the first US President was not George Washington, but John Hanson. “Who’s that?” you may ask. Good question! Once the Articles of Confederation took effect, John Hanson was the first man to be elected “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” But this was hardly the same office as President of the United States under the Constitution, so as far as the US Presidency goes, I consider John Hanson to be a fun trivia fact as opposed to a actual holder of the highest office. (In total, 14 men served as president over the various versions of Congress from 1774 to 1789).
Next week, I shall return to my original plan and start posting about our actual Presidents, in order, starting with George Washington.