President of the Continental Congress

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The president of the Continental Congress was the presiding officer of the Continental Congress, the convention of delegates that emerged as the first (transitional) national government of the United States during the American Revolution. The president was a member of Congress elected by the other delegates to serve as a neutral discussion moderator during meetings of Congress. Designed to be a largely ceremonial position without much influence, the office was unrelated to the later office of President of the United States.[1] Upon the ratification of the Articles of Confederation (the new nation's first constitution) in March 1781, the Continental Congress became the Congress of the Confederation. The membership of the Second Continental Congress carried over without interruption to the First Congress of the Confederation, as did the office of president.

Fourteen men served as president of Congress between September 1774 and November 1788. They came from 9 of the original 13 states: Virginia (3), Massachusetts (2), Pennsylvania (2), South Carolina (2), Connecticut (1), Delaware (1), Maryland (1), New Jersey (1), and New York (1). The median age at the time of election was 47.[2]

Role[edit]

The president of Congress was, by design, a position with little authority.[3] The Continental Congress, fearful of concentrating political power in an individual, gave their presiding officer even less responsibility than the speakers in the lower houses of the colonial assemblies.[4] Unlike some colonial speakers, the president of Congress could not, for example, set the legislative agenda or make committee appointments.[5] The president could not meet privately with foreign leaders; such meetings were held with committees or the entire Congress.[6]

The presidency was a largely ceremonial position.[7][8] There was no salary.[9] The primary role of the office was to preside over meetings of Congress, which entailed serving as an impartial moderator during debates.[10] When Congress would resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss important matters, the president would relinquish his chair to the chairman of the Committee of the Whole.[11] Even so, the fact that President Thomas McKean was at the same time serving as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, provoked some criticism that he had become too powerful. According to historian Jennings Sanders, McKean's critics were ignorant of the powerlessness of the office of president of Congress.[12]

The president was also responsible for dealing with a large amount of official correspondence,[13] but he could not answer any letter without being instructed to do so by Congress.[14] Presidents also signed, but did not write, Congress's official documents.[15] These limitations could be frustrating, because a delegate essentially declined in influence when he was elected president.[16]

Historian Richard B. Morris argued that, despite the ceremonial role, some presidents were able to wield some influence:

Lacking specific authorization or clear guidelines, the presidents of Congress could with some discretion influence events, formulate the agenda of Congress, and proded Congress to move in directions they considered proper. Much depended on the incumbents themselves and their readiness to exploit the peculiar opportunities their office provided.[17]

Congress, and its presidency, declined in importance after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation and the ending of the Revolutionary War. Increasingly, delegates elected to the Congress declined to serve, the leading men in each state preferred to serve in state government, and the Congress had difficulty establishing a quorum.[18] President Hanson wanted to resign after only a week in office, but Congress lacked a quorum to select a successor, and so he stayed on.[7] President Mifflin found it difficult to convince the states to send enough delegates to Congress to ratify the 1783 Treaty of Paris.[19] For six weeks in 1784, President Lee did not come to Congress, but instead instructed secretary Charles Thomson to forward any papers that needed his signature.[20]

John Hancock was elected to a second term in November 1785, even though he was not then in Congress, and Congress was aware that he was unlikely to attend.[21] He never took his seat, citing poor health, though he may have been uninterested in the position.[21] Two delegates, David Ramsay and Nathaniel Gorham, performed his duties with the title of "chairman".[21][22] When Hancock finally resigned the office in June 1786, Gorham was elected. After he resigned in November 1786, it was months before enough members were present in Congress to elect a new president.[21] In February 1787, General Arthur St. Clair was elected. Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance during St. Clair's presidency and elected him as the governor of the Northwest Territory.[23]

As the people of the various states began debating the proposed United States Constitution in later months of 1787, the Confederation Congress found itself reduced to the status of a caretaker government.[21] There were not enough delegates present to choose St. Clair's successor until January 22, 1788, when the final president of Congress, Cyrus Griffin, was elected.[21] Griffin resigned his office on November 15, 1788, after only two delegates showed up for the new session of Congress.[21]

Term of office[edit]

Prior to ratification of the Articles, presidents of Congress served terms of no specific duration; their tenure ended when they resigned, or, lacking an official resignation, when Congress selected a successor. When Peyton Randolph, who was elected in September 1774 to preside over the First Continental Congress, was unable to attend the last few days of the session due to poor health, Henry Middleton was elected to replace him.[24] When the Second Continental Congress convened the following May, Randolph was again chosen as president, but he returned to Virginia two weeks later to preside over the House of Burgesses.[25] John Hancock was elected to fill the vacancy, but his position was somewhat ambiguous, because it was not clear if Randolph had resigned or was on a leave of absence.[26] The situation became uncomfortable when Randolph returned to Congress in September 1775. Some delegates thought Hancock should have stepped down, but he did not; the matter was resolved only by Randolph's sudden death that October.[27]

Ambiguity also clouded the end of Hancock's term. He left in October 1777 for what he believed was an extended leave of absence, only to find upon his return that Congress had elected Henry Laurens to replace him.[28] Hancock, whose term ran from May 24, 1775 to October 29, 1777 (a period of 2 years, 5 months), was the longest serving president of Congress.

The length of a presidential term was ultimately codified by Article Nine of the Articles of Confederation, which authorized Congress "to appoint one of their number to preside; provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years".[29] When the Articles went into effect in March 1781, however, the Continental Congress did not hold an election for a new president under the new constitution.[30] Instead, Samuel Huntington continued serving a term that had already exceeded the new Term limit.[30] The first president to serve the specified one-year term was Thomas McKean (November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782).[7][31]

List of presidents[edit]

Terms and backgrounds of the 14 persons who served as president of the Continental Congress:[32]

President State/colony Term Length Previous position
PeytonRandolph.jpeg Peyton Randolph Virginia
September 5, 1774

October 22, 1774
48 days Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
Henry Middleton by Benjamin West.jpg Henry Middleton South Carolina
October 22, 1774

October 26, 1774
5 days Speaker, S.C. Commons House of Assembly
PeytonRandolph.jpeg Peyton Randolph Virginia
May 10, 1775

May 24, 1775
15 days Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
John Hancock 1770-crop.jpg John Hancock Massachusetts
May 24, 1775

October 29, 1777
890 days President, Massachusetts Provincial Congress
Henry laurens.jpg Henry Laurens South Carolina
November 1, 1777

December 9, 1778
404 days President, S.C. Provincial Congress, Vice President, S.C.
CJ Jay.tif John Jay New York
December 10, 1778

September 28, 1779
293 days Chief Justice New York Supreme Court
Samuel Huntington - Charles Willson Peale.jpg Samuel Huntington Connecticut
September 28, 1779

July 10, 1781
652 days Associate Judge, Connecticut Superior Court
Thomas McKean by Charles Willson Peale.jpg Thomas McKean Delaware
July 10, 1781

November 5, 1781
119 days Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
John Hanson Portrait 1770.jpg John Hanson Maryland
November 5, 1781

November 4, 1782
365 days Maryland House of Delegates
Elias Boudinot.jpg Elias Boudinot New Jersey
November 4, 1782

November 3, 1783
365 days Commissary of Prisoners for the Continental Army
Thomas Mifflin.jpg Thomas Mifflin Pennsylvania
November 3, 1783

June 3, 1784
214 days Quartermaster General of Continental Army, Board of War
Richard Henry Lee at Nat. Portrait Gallery IMG 4471.JPG Richard Henry Lee Virginia
November 30, 1784

November 4, 1785
340 days Virginia House of Burgesses
John Hancock 1770-crop.jpg John Hancock Massachusetts
November 23, 1785

June 5, 1786
195 days Governor of Massachusetts
Nathaniel Gorham.jpg Nathaniel Gorham Massachusetts
June 6, 1786

November 3, 1786
151 days Board of War
ArthurStClairOfficialPortrait-restored.jpg Arthur St. Clair Pennsylvania
February 2, 1787

November 4, 1787
276 days Major General, Continental Army
CyrusGriffin.jpg Cyrus Griffin Virginia
January 22, 1788

November 15, 1788
299 days Judge, Virginia Court of Appeals

Relationship to the President of the United States[edit]

Because Hanson was the first president to serve under the Articles of Confederation, his grandson later promoted him as the "first President of the United States" and waged a successful campaign to have Hanson's statue placed in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, even though, according to historian Gregory Stiverson, Hanson was not one of Maryland's foremost leaders of the Revolutionary era.[7] In reality, beyond a similarity of title, the office of president of Congress "bore no relationship"[1] to the later office of President of the United States. As historian Edmund Burnett wrote:

[T]he President of the United States is scarcely in any sense the successor of the presidents of the old Congress. The presidents of Congress were almost solely presiding officers, possessing scarcely a shred of executive or administrative functions; whereas the President of the United States is almost solely an executive officer, with no presiding duties at all. Barring a likeness in social and diplomatic precedence, the two offices are identical only in the possession of the same title.[33]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Ellis 1999, p. 1.
  2. ^ Morris 1987, p. 101.
  3. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 71.
  4. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 71–73.
  5. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 75, 89.
  6. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 77–78.
  7. ^ a b c d Gregory A. Stiverson, "Hanson, John, Jr.", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  8. ^ H. James Henderson. "Boudinot, Elias", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  9. ^ Sanders 1930, 13.
  10. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 76, 82.
  11. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 81.
  12. ^ Sanders 1930, pp. 21–22.
  13. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 76.
  14. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 80.
  15. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 78.
  16. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 89.
  17. ^ Morris 1987, p. 100
  18. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 85–88.
  19. ^ John K. Alexander, "Mifflin, Thomas", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  20. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 87.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 88.
  22. ^ Sanders 1930, p. 29.
  23. ^ Sanders 1930, pp. 30–31.
  24. ^ Sanders 1930, p. 11.
  25. ^ Sanders 1930, pp. 11–12.
  26. ^ Fowler 1980, p. 191.
  27. ^ Fowler 1980, p. 199.
  28. ^ Fowler 1980, p. 230–31.
  29. ^ Ford, Worthington C.; et al., eds. (1904–37). "Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789". Washington, D.C. Retrieved December 31, 2017. 
  30. ^ a b Burnett 1941, 503.
  31. ^ Burnett 1941, p. 524.
  32. ^ Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 77.
  33. ^ Burnett 1941, p. 34.

Works cited[edit]

  • Burnett, Edward Cody (1941). The Continental Congress. New York City, New York: Norton. 
  • Ellis, Richard J. (1999). Founding the American Presidency. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-9499-2. 
  • Fowler, William M., Jr. (1980). The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-27619-5. .
  • Jillson, Calvin C.; Wilson, Rick K. (1994). Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774–1789. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2293-5. .
  • Morris, Richard B. (1987). The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789. New York City, New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0060157333. 
  • Sanders, Jennings Bryans (1930). The Presidency of the Continental Congress, 1774-89: A Study in American Institutional History. Chicago. 

External links[edit]