We’ve received many queries about the historical accuracy of stories that have circulated in our communities for years. One is that a black man named John Hanson was the first president of the United States. I wrote about this tale in an editor’s letter in the Fall 2001 issue of American Legacy, but because I’ve had more queries about it lately, I thought I’d address it again here.
The story goes that on November 5, 1781, a John Hanson of African descent was elected the first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to our present Constitution. This is a type of historical urban legend that has been circulating for years and is incorrect. The John Hanson who became the first president of the Continental Congress was a white man of European descent. The black John Hanson was a senator of Liberia in the mid-nineteenth century.
As I wrote in that earlier letter, it would be easy to confuse the two John Hansons: They have the same name, and information on both of them can be found at places such as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Archives. A quick search on any of these organization’s Web sites yields information on, and pictures of, both men. Mixing up the two files could produce the first black president of the United States.
But here’s where logic steps in: No matter how African-Americans and their part in U.S. history have been ignored in the past (and this has been, and still is lamentably true in many cases), something as important as a black man becoming the head of a fledgling United States would have made it into the history books.
There isn’t a conspiracy big enough to have hidden that fact.
In addition, the same person could hardly have been head of state in one country and then senator in another nearly 70 years later, and even if such a thing could have happened and been kept secret, why would white American, in 1781, have allowed a black man to head the government? Finally, the image of the black John Hanson is a daguerreotype. Even if by some wild stretch of the imagination one could believe he was the first President of the United States, one could not deny the unalterable fact that modern photography wasn’t invented until decades after he supposedly took office.
In view of the recent inauguration of our forty-fourth President, who without a doubt is African-American, it seemed that an attempt to finally put the story of John Hanson to rest would help us proudly trade a mythical black first president for a very real first black commander in chief.