John Hanson


John Hanson (Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland, United States; April 3, 1715-Oxon Hill, Prince George's County, Maryland, United States; November 15, 1783) was the first president of the Continental Congress of the United States during the period of the American Revolution.


John Hanson was the son of Elizabeth Story (1688-1764), a native of Maryland, and Samuel Hanson (1684-1740), judge, member of the Charles County Lower House, 1716-1717, and deputy county commissioner from 1724 to 1734.

His parents married in 1707 at the old parish of William and Mary in Charles, Maryland, and together they had 12 children: Elizabeth Hanson (1707-1782), Mary Hanson (1709-1738), Walter Hanson (1711-1794), Sarah Hanson (1714-1738), Samuel Hanson (1716-1794), Charity Hanson (1718-1755), John Hanson (1715-1783), Jane Hanson (1722-?), William Hanson (1726-?), Gustavus Richard Hanson (1727-1727), Chloe Hanson (1728-1790) and Dorothy Hanson (1729-?).

John Hanson's most distant ancestor was William de Bingley (1180-1240), father of Roger de Rastrick (1200-1251), who lived before 1251 and was a person of considerable importance. He owned land in various parts of Yorkshire, England, with Rastrick being one of his estates, and he was the great-great-grandfather of Henry de Rastrick (1280-1334), who in turn had a son, John.

In those days, when only Christian names were used, the two Johns of Rastrick were undoubtedly confused, and to distinguish them, the younger John became Henry's son, abbreviated as Hen's son, and Henson, or Hanson, as it was later spelled out. Already in the next generation of 1337, the name is spelled Henson, in Halifax.

John Hanson married Jane Contee (1726-1812) in 1747 in Annapolis, Maryland and together they had 13 children: Jane Contee Hanson (1747-1781), Alexander Contee Hanson (1749-1806), David Hanson (1750-1800), John Hanson (1753-1760), James Hanson (1756-1830), John Hanson (1758-1818), Grace Hanson (1762-1763), Elizabeth Hanson (1775-1825), Catherine Contee Hanson (1744-1767), Elizabeth Hanson (1751-1753), Samuel Hanson (1756-1781), Peter Contee Hanson (1758-1776) and John Hanson (1768-1825).

One of his daughters, Jane Hanson (1747-1781), married Philip Thomas (1747-1815), an American physician, patriot, and politician, while Peter Hanson (1748-1776), died at the Battle of Fort Washington during the American War of Independence. For his wartime service, he was eligible for representation of a living descendant in the Society of Cincinnati in the state of Maryland.

Alexander Contee Hanson (1749-1806), was a prominent essayist and his son, Alexander Contee Hanson, Jr. (1786-1819), became a newspaper editor and United States senator.

It should be noted that John Hanson's wife, Jane, was the daughter of Jane Brooke (1703-1749), daughter of Thomas Brooke (1660-1731), president of the Maryland council and thirteenth governor of Maryland. As for his father, Alexander Contee (1692-1740), he was a prosperous merchant from Nottingham, Prince George's County, who acquired large tracts of land and was for many years clerk of the county court, an office of great importance in those days.

John Hanson was also the grandson of John Hanson (1630-1714), one of the founders of New Sweden along the Delaware River in Maryland and a cousin of the Reverend Samuel Hanson of Yorkshire (1693-1763) who married Mary Foster (1694 - 1760), in turn grandparents of Colonel Joseph Hanson (1774-1811), who gained such notoriety when large gatherings of Manchester weavers were held in 1808.


John Hanson was born in Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland, on April 14, 1721. Sources published prior to a 1940 genealogical study sometimes indicated his date of birth as April 13 or his year of birth as 1715.

Hanson was born on a plantation called Mulberry Grove into a wealthy and prominent family. His father Samuel Hanson was a planter who owned more than 1,000 acres and held a variety of political offices, including two terms in the Maryland General Assembly.

John Hanson's grandfather, also named John, came to Charles County, Maryland, as a hired servant around 1661. In 1876, a writer named George Hanson included John Hanson in his family tree of Swedish-Americans descendants of four Swedish brothers who emigrated to New Sweden in 1642. This story was repeated often over the next century, but academic research in the late 20th century showed that John Hanson was not related to those Swedish-American Hansons.

Little is known about Hanson's early life; presumably he was instructed in private as was the custom among the wealthy of his time and place. He followed his father's path as a planter, slave owner, and public official. He was often referred to as John Hanson, Jr., to distinguish him from an older man of the same name.

In 1779, John Hanson was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress after serving in a variety of roles for the patriot cause in Maryland. He signed the Articles of Confederation in 1781 after Maryland finally joined the other states in ratifying them.

In November 1781, the first president of the Congress of the Confederacy (sometimes referred to as President of the United States in the assembled Congress) was elected, following the ratification of the articles. For this reason, some of Hanson's biographers have argued that he was actually the first incumbent of the office of President of the United States.

Hanson's career in public service began in 1750, when he was appointed Sheriff of Charles County.

In 1757 he was elected to represent Charles County in the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly, where he served for the next twelve years, serving on many important committees.

Maryland was a proprietary colony, and Hanson sided with the popular or rural party, which opposed any expansion of the power of proprietary governors at the expense of the town-elected lower house. He was one of the main opponents of the Stamp Act of 1765 and chaired the committee that wrote the instructions for Maryland delegates to Congress for that act.

In protest of the Townshend laws, in 1769 Hanson was one of the signatories to a no-import resolution that boycotted British imports until the laws were repealed.

Hanson changed course in 1769, apparently to better pursue his business interests. He resigned from the General Assembly, sold his land in Charles County, and moved to Frederick County in western Maryland. There he held a variety of positions, including deputy inspector, sheriff, and county treasurer.

When relations between Great Britain and the colonies fell into crisis in 1774, Hanson became one of the leading patriots of Frederick County. He chaired a city meeting that passed a resolution against the Boston Harbor Act.

In 1775, he was a delegate to the Maryland Convention, an extralegal body convened after the extension of the colonial assembly. With the other delegates, he signed the Association of Free Men on July 26, 1775, which expressed the hope of reconciliation with Great Britain, but also called for military resistance to the application of the Coercive Laws.

With hostilities ongoing, Hanson chaired the Frederick County Observation Committee, part of the Patriot organization that took over local government. Responsible for recruiting and arming soldiers, Hanson proved to be an excellent organizer, and Frederick County sent the first troops from the south to join George Washington's army. Because funds were scarce, Hanson used to pay soldiers and others with his own money.

In June 1776, Hanson presided over the Frederick County meeting that urged provincial leaders in Annapolis to instruct Maryland delegates to the Continental Congress to declare their independence from Great Britain. While Congress worked on the Declaration of Independence, Hanson was in Frederick County "making guns, storing gunpowder, guarding prisoners, raising money and troops, dealing with conservatives, and doing the myriad other tasks that come with being president of the United States an observation committee".

Hanson was elected to the newly reformed Maryland House of Delegates in 1777, the first of five annual terms. In December 1779, the House of Delegates appointed Hanson as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress; He began serving in Congress in Philadelphia in June 1780.

"Hanson came to Philadelphia with a reputation as the leading financier of the revolution in western Maryland and was soon a member of various committees related to finance."

When Hanson was elected to Congress, Maryland was delaying ratification of the Articles of Confederation. The state, which had no western land claims, refused to ratify the articles until the other states had given up their western land claims. When the other states finally did, the Maryland legislature decided in January 1781 to ratify the articles. Many years later, some Hanson biographers claimed that Hanson had been instrumental in securing compromise and thus ensuring ratification of the articles, but according to historian Ralph Levering, there is no documentary evidence of Hanson's views or actions to resolve the controversy.

On November 5, 1781, Congress elected Hanson as it's president. According to the Articles of Confederation, the United States had no executive power; the post of president of Congress was largely ceremonial, but the post required Hanson to act as a neutral moderator of the discussion, handle official correspondence, and sign documents.

Hanson found the job tedious and considered quitting after just a week, citing his poor health and family responsibilities. 

His colleagues urged him to stay because Congress at the time did not have a quorum to choose a successor. Out of a sense of duty, Hanson remained in office, although his term as a delegate to Congress was about to expire. The Maryland Assembly re-elected him as a delegate on November 28, 1781, for which Hanson continued to serve as president until November 4, 1782.

The articles of confederation stipulate that presidents of Congress serve one-year terms, and Hanson became the first to do so. However, contrary to the claims of some of his later advocates, he was not the first president to serve according to the articles, nor the first to be elected according to the articles.

When the articles went into effect in March 1781, Congress did not bother to choose a new president; instead, Samuel Huntington continued to serve a term that had already exceeded one year.

On July 9, 1781, Samuel Johnston became the first man to be elected president of Congress after the articles were ratified. However, he declined the position, perhaps to be available for the North Carolina gubernatorial election.

After Johnston turned down the position, Thomas McKean was elected. McKean served only a few months and resigned in October 1781 after hearing the news of the British surrender at Yorktown. Congress asked him to remain in office until November, when a new session was scheduled to begin. It was at that session that Hanson began serving his one-year term.

A highlight of Hanson's tenure was when George Washington presented the Sword of Cornwallis to Congress.


John Hanson died on November 15, 1783, while visiting Oxon Hill Manor in Prince George's County, Maryland, the plantation of his nephew Thomas Hawkins Hanson, and was buried there.


In 1898, Douglas H. Thomas, a descendant of Hanson, wrote a biography promoting Hanson as the first true president of the United States. Thomas became the driving force behind the selection of Hanson as one of two people who would represent Maryland at the National Collection Statuary Hall in Washington, DC.

Hanson was not initially on the short list for consideration, but was chosen after lobbying by the Maryland Historical Society.

In 1903, the bronze statues of Hanson and Charles Carroll by sculptor Richard E. Brooks were added to Statuary Hall; Hanson's is currently on the second floor of the Senate connecting corridor. Small versions of these two statues are found on the President's desk in the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House.

Some historians have questioned the suitability of Hanson's selection for the honor of representing Maryland at Statuary Hall. According to historian Gregory Stiverson, Hanson was not one of Maryland's top leaders of the revolutionary era.

In 1975, historian Ralph Levering said that "Hanson should not have been one of the two elected Marylanders", but wrote that Hanson "probably contributed as much as any other Marylander to the success of the American Revolution."

In the 21st century, Maryland lawmakers have considered replacing Hanson's statue in Statuary Hall with one of Harriet Tubman.

The idea that Hanson was the first forgotten president of the United States was further promoted in a 1932 biography of Hanson by journalist Seymour Wemyss Smith.

Smith's book claimed that the American Revolution had two main leaders: George Washington on the battlefield and John Hanson in politics. Smith's book, like Douglas H. Thomas's 1898 book, was one of several biographies written that sought to promote Hanson as the "first president of the United States."

Regarding opinion, historian Ralph Levering stated: "They are not biographies of professional historians; they are not based on research from primary sources."

According to historian Richard B. Morris, if a president of Congress were to be called the first president of the United States, "a stronger case could be made for Peyton Randolph of Virginia, the first president of the first and second continental congresses, or for John Hancock, the president of Congress when that body declared it's independence." The claim that Hanson was a forgotten president of the United States was revived on the Internet, sometimes with a new claim that he was actually a black man; an anachronistic photograph of Senator John Hanson of Liberia has been used to support this claim.

In 1972, Hanson was depicted on a 6-cent American postcard, which featured his name and portrait alongside the word "Patriot." Historian Irving Brant criticized Hanson's selection for the card, arguing that it was the result of the "old hoax" promoting Hanson as the first president of the United States.

In 1981, Hanson appeared on a US 20 cent postage stamp. The U.S. Route 50 between Washington D.C. and Annapolis is named John Hanson Highway in his honor. There are also middle schools located in Oxon Hill, Maryland and Waldorf, Maryland, named after him. A former savings bank named after him merged in the 1990s with Industrial Bank of Washington, D.C.

In the 1970s, a descendant of Hanson, John Hanson Briscoe, served as speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, which passed "a measure establishing April 14 as John Hanson Day."

In 2009, the John Hanson Memorial Association was incorporated in Frederick, Maryland, to create the John Hanson National Memorial and to educate Americans about Hanson, as well as to educate people about the many myths written about him. The monument includes a statue of President John Hanson and an interpretive stage in Frederick, Maryland, where Hanson lived between 1769 and his death in 1783.

The memorial is located in the courtyard of the Frederick County Courthouse at the corner of Court and West Patrick streets. Memorial leaders include President Peter Hanson Michael, Vice President Robert Hanson, and Director John C. Hanson. John Hanson Briscoe was also a director until his death in 2014.


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