Amaze your friends with your deeper knowledge of American history. Ask them this question: Who was the first president of the United States?
George Washington, right? Not exactly.
George Washington was the first president to be elected under the U.S. Constitution in 1792.
But the first president under the Articles of Confederation, which was the law of the land from 1781 to 1789, was Samuel Huntington of Connecticut.
Huntington was succeeded by nine others, who were elected from among their fellow delegates and held the office for one year.
However, a good case could be made that the first “real” president of the United States was John Hanson.
Hanson was the first president to hold office for one year during the Confederation Congress.
President Hanson reluctantly held the office from November 1781 until November 1782, presiding over the expulsion of the British Army from American lands, as well as the establishment of a Treasury Department, a Secretary of War, and the first government department of Foreign Affairs.
And here’s another tidbit about John Hanson: He was responsible for establishing Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November.
Table of Contents
- The position of president was mostly ceremonial
- States’ rights were paramount
- Other major differences between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States
- The Federalist Papers highlighted the differences
- The U.S. Constitution was far from perfect
The position of president was mostly ceremonial
Trivia, aside, under the Articles of Confederation, the office of president was mostly ceremonial and certainly less powerful than today’s Speaker of the House.
Hanson, it was said, found the work mundane and tedious, dealing with the government’s papers and signing documents.
So, John Hanson and company illustrated one of the two major differences between the Articles of Confederation and its successor, the United States Constitution:
1. Under the Articles of Confederation, there was no Executive Branch.
The U.S. Constitution established the powerful office of the President of the United States with powers to approve (or veto) laws passed by Congress, conduct the country’s foreign affairs, and serve as commander in chief of the armed forces.
2. The second major difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution was that the confederation’s central government was weak.
The central government had no power to levy taxes, could not regulate foreign and interstate commerce, and had no power to organize and gather a combined military force. The U.S. Constitution established a strong central government with specific powers defined for each branch of government.
States’ rights were paramount
The Articles of Confederation were signed during a time when proud and independent states wanted no part of a strong central government.
Jealous sectional rivalries between slaveholding southerners and northerners nearly cost the country’s independence.
General Washington pleaded with the Continental Congress for troops and funding during those dark and cold days encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Washington was given unprecedented freedom of action, but not much else. The Congress had to flee Philadelphia to escape capture, but decisive victories at Saratoga and the British surrender of Yorktown injected new life into the American government.
In its new life as a newly independent nation, it became apparent that the country needed a better way to govern itself.
An essentially powerless national government had to deal with states who ran their own militias, printed their own money, and squabbled over trade and tariffs.
A stronger central government was the only answer.
No central power to enforce laws
Resentment against taxation and the resulting unstable national economy boiled over in a 1786 western Massachusetts protest – the Shays Rebellion.
Farmers, who were ex-Revolutionary War soldiers received hardly any compensation for their service and were struggling against debt, with no paper money or accessible gold or silver to pay their debts.
The rebellion was put down, and many participants were pardoned. However, the major political significance of the uprising was that it provided additional support for those who believed in a strong central government.
It was time for George Washington to come out of retirement and lend his prestige to form a strong national government.
Henry Knox, a Revolutionary War artillery commander and future U.S. Secretary of War typified that belief in a letter to retired General George Washington:
“We imagined that…we were not as other nations requiring brutal force to support the laws – But we find that we are men…possessing all the turbulent passions belonging to that animal and that we must have a government proper and adequate for him.”
The Constitutional Convention scrapped the Articles
So, on May 25, 1787, delegates from every state except Rhode Island met in Pennsylvania’s Independence Hall.
Instead of revising the Articles of Confederation, chaired by Virginia delegate George Washington, delegates decided to draw up a new scheme of government.
After three months of debate, the end result was a federal system with a brilliantly designed federal system that has endured for over 230 years with only 27 amendments.
Other major differences between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States
The Constitution of the United States overcame many of the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, including the following.
Central Government Strengthened
Under the Articles of Confederation, there was only one weak branch of government – Congress.
The U.S. Constitution introduced three independent branches, the two-house Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch.
Each branch has checks on the powers of the others.
For example, the President can veto bills passed by Congress, and Congress can override the veto – and impeach the President.
The President can appoint high government officials, but the Senate has the power to block the appointment.
The Supreme Court can declare any law unconstitutional.
Under the Articles of Confederation, each state, regardless of size or population, had just one vote.
Delegations had to consist of no less than two or more than seven members. Also, members were limited to “three years in any term of six years.”
The U.S. Constitution resolves that inequity, while at the same time protecting the power of smaller states with two legislative chambers: the House of Representatives, where members are elected according to the state’s population; and the Senate, where each state, regardless of size or population, is represented by two senators.
Note: Until 1912, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislators. The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowed Senators to be elected by popular vote.
State governors can fill temporary Senate vacancies with interim appointments.
Amending the Covenant
The Articles of Confederation could not be amended without the unanimous approval of all delegates.
The U.S. Constitution can be amended by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress or if initiated and approved by a two-thirds vote of the states.
To pass a law under the Articles required a supermajority of nine of the 13 states.
Under the U.S. Constitution, bills are passed by a majority of both houses and signed by the President.
Admitting New States
Under the Articles of Confederation, new states could enter the union, but nine votes were required.
The notable and specifically mentioned exception in Article XI was Canada, who, if their citizens wanted to join, “shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union.
Canada stayed with Great Britain until becoming independent in 1867.
Article IV, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution essentially says that Congress can admit new states into the Union by passing a separate law, but no state can be formed within another state.
The Federalist Papers highlighted the differences
In the factional debate between those who believed in a strong government and those who did not, two early political parties – the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists – emerged.
The Anti-Federalists were a political faction in the very beginnings of the American government; as indicated by the prefix “Anti-“, they were opponents of a group called Federalists.
This faction did not want a strong central government, and they strongly opposed the new Constitution.
Despite ten years of disunity under the clearly inadequate Articles of Confederation, with a weak Continental Congress that proved unequal to the task of running our newly independent country, the Anti-Federalists were deeply suspicious of any system that would supplant the supremacy of the individual states.
The Anti-Federalist group was somewhat more reactionary, less well-known, and not so well organized.
They wrote their Anti-Federalist papers giving opposing viewpoints. They insisted that a strong federal government would be a return to the very despotism they defeated in the recent revolution.
Anti-Federalists also argued that a federal judiciary with powers superseding state courts was a dangerous infringement on states’ rights.
While the states were debating and considering the proposed Constitution, the better organized Federalists used the power of the press to make a good case for a new Constitution.
The federalist vision was a new federal government with a strong chief executive, an empowered judiciary, and two chambers of representatives to keep an eye on the latter two.
The Federalists, who were the brains of the country – John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, to name only four – wrote and published the historic Federalist Papers and won their case.
After the Anti-Federalists lost the constitutional argument, they assumed the role of an opposition party both within and outside of the first President’s government.
George Washington despised factionalism and wanted nothing to do with political parties. Within his cabinet, however, were the personifications of the factionalism he hated.
Alexander Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury and a quintessential Federalist. Hamilton’s archrival and the premier Anti-Federalist was Thomas Jefferson.
As the political argument between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists polarized both factions, a frustrated Thomas Jefferson withdrew from George Washington’s administration.
Despite his stated neutrality, George Washington normally favored many of Hamilton’s strong Federalist banking and fiscal policies and backed Hamilton in disputes with Jefferson.
The four years of George Washington’s successor, John Adams, saw the first real abuse of power by the Federalist Congress and its president with the hated Alien and Sedition Acts.
Under these egregiously anti-constitutional laws, it was unlawful to criticize the government and more than one newspaper publisher was jailed.
The Federalists dominated the American government until John Adams’ failed reelection campaign in 1800.
The U.S. Constitution was far from perfect
America’s founders made a fatal pact with the evil of human slavery. In order to appease slaveholding states and get their support for ratifying the Constitution, they had to write in the infamous “three-fifths” representation rule.
The rule was a compromise with slaveholders that allowed slave states to count a slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of direct taxation and representation in the national House of Representatives.
Without that compromise, our Constitution would not have been ratified by the southern states.
It was nevertheless a pact with evil and a “poison pill,” even if it was a choice between the lesser of the two.
That can of worms was kicked down the road and eventually required four years of bloody civil war, and two constitutional amendments to resolve the issue.