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 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 an impartial 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]

Fourteen men served as president of Congress. The first was Peyton Randolph, who was elected on September 5, 1774. The last president, Cyrus Griffin, resigned in November 1788. President John Hancock is remembered for his large, bold signature on the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted and signed during his presidency.


The first President of Congress was Peyton Randolph of Virginia, who was elected on September 5, 1774, to preside over the First Continental Congress. Poor health prevented him from attending the last few days of the session, and so Henry Middleton of South Carolina was elected to replace him.[2] When the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, Randolph was again chosen as president, but he returned to Virginia two weeks later to preside over the House of Burgesses.[3] Middleton declined to serve in the office again, and so John Hancock, the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, was elected to the post. Hancock presided over Congress for more than two years before returning to Massachusetts.

After Robert Morris rejected suggestions that he should succeed Hancock, Henry Laurens of South Carolina was elected in November 1777.[4] During Laurens's presidency, Congress became embroiled in a bitter dispute over the activities of diplomat Silas Deane. Laurens, a critic of Deane, resigned in protest during the affair. Laurens hoped that Congress would reelect him and vindicate his actions,[5] but in an election held in December 1778, only four states voted for him. Eight states voted for John Jay, who became the next president. (There were only twelve votes because one state did not have any delegates in attendance at the time.) During his presidency, Jay also served as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court.[6]

When Jay left the presidency to serve as minister to Spain, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut was elected on September 28, 1779.[7] Huntington had health problems, including contracting smallpox in 1780, and so he asked to be replaced in July 1781.[7][8] By this time, the Articles of Confederation had been ratified. On July 9, 1781, Samuel Johnston became the first man to be elected as president of Congress after the ratification of the Articles.[9] He declined the office, however, citing pressing family matters. He may also have wanted to return to North Carolina to make himself available in the gubernatorial election of 1782.[10]

After Johnston turned down the office, Thomas McKean was elected on July 10, 1781.[7][8] Although McKean was a delegate from Delaware, he was also serving at the time as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. His dual role as president of Congress and Chief Justice of Pennsylvania provoked some criticism that McKean had become too powerful. According to historian Jennings Sanders, McKean's critics were ignorant of the powerlessness of the office of president of Congress.[11]

President McKean resigned on October 23, 1781, after hearing news of the British surrender at Yorktown, but Congress asked him to remain in office until November, when a new session of Congress was scheduled to begin.[12] (The Articles of Confederation called for Congress to meet "on the first Monday in November, in every year....") On November 5, 1781, John Hanson of Maryland was elected. He would become the first president of Congress to serve a one-year term as specified under the Articles of Confederation.[12][13][14] He was followed by Elias Boudinot, who won the office in a comparatively narrow election, receiving the votes of just seven states.[14]

Boudinot's successor was Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, who was elected to the presidency more than a week before he had secured reelection as a congressional delegate. "[H]ad the Presidency been a more important office", wrote historian Jennings Sanders, "this would strike one as having been rather hazardous."[15] Mifflin served for just seven months. His most important duty was to accept on behalf of Congress the commission of General George Washington, who resigned in December 1783.[16] Mifflin was followed in office by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, who was elected on November 30, 1784.[17]

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.[18] He never took his seat, citing poor health, though he may have been uninterested in the position.[18] Two delegates, David Ramsay and Nathaniel Gorham, performed his duties with the title of "chairman".[18][19] 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.[18] 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.[20]

Even before the ratification of the new United States Constitution in June 1788, the Confederation Congress had been reduced to the status of a caretaker government.[18] 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.[18] Griffin resigned his office on November 15, 1788, after only two delegates showed up for the new session of Congress.[18]


The president of Congress was, by design, a position with little authority.[21] 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.[22] Unlike some colonial speakers, the president of Congress could not, for example, set the legislative agenda or make committee appointments.[23] The president could not meet privately with foreign leaders; such meetings were held with committees or the entire Congress.[24]

The presidency was a largely ceremonial position.[13][25][26] There was no salary.[27] The primary role of the office was to preside over meetings of Congress, which entailed serving as an impartial moderator during debates.[28] 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.[29]

The president was also responsible for dealing with a large amount of official correspondence,[30] but he could not answer any letter without being instructed to do so by Congress.[31] Presidents also signed, but did not write, Congress's official documents.[32] These limitations could be frustrating, because a delegate essentially declined in influence when he was elected president.[33] Henry Laurens, for example, resigned his presidency so that he could play a more active role in Congress.[34] There was talk in 1784 of making the office more important, but no changes were made.[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 prod 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.[35]

Congress, and its presidency, declined in importance after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation and the ending of the American 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.[36] 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.[13] President Mifflin found it difficult to convince the states to send enough delegates to Congress to ratify the 1783 Treaty of Paris.[37] 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.[38]

Term of office

Before the Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781, 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 John Hancock was elected to preside over the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, his position was somewhat ambiguous, because it was not clear if President Peyton Randolph had permanently resigned or was on a leave of absence.[39] 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 in October.[40] 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.[41]

The time that presidents of Congress served in office varied. The longest serving was John Hancock, who presided for more than two years. With the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the length of service was finally codified. The only reference to the president of Congress in the Articles is a brief mention of the term of office:

The united ſtates in congreſs aſsembled ſhall have authority…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….

When the Articles went into effect in March 1781, however, Congress did not bother to hold an election for a new president.[8] Instead, Samuel Huntington continued serving a term that had already exceeded a year.[8] It was not until the election of John Hanson on November 5, 1781, that presidents began serving one-year terms as specified under the Articles of Confederation.[12][13] Aside from this new term limit, the office was otherwise unchanged from before the ratification of the Articles.[42]

Relationship to the President of the United States

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.[43]

Because John Hanson was the first president to serve a one-year term under the terms of the Articles of Confederation, his grandson 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.[13]

List of presidents

Hardly youthful revolutionaries, their average age at the time of election to the presidency was forty-seven.

— Richard B. Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789[44]
Name State/colony Age Term start Term end Length in days Previous experience
Peyton Randolph Virginia 53 September 5, 1774 October 22, 1774 48 Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
Henry Middleton South Carolina 57 October 22, 1774 October 26, 1774 5 Speaker, S.C. Commons House of Assembly
Peyton Randolph Virginia 54 May 10, 1775 May 24, 1775 15 Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
John Hancock Massachusetts 38 May 24, 1775 October 29, 1777 890 President, Massachusetts Provincial Congress
Henry Laurens South Carolina 53 November 1, 1777 December 9, 1778 404 President, S.C. Provincial Congress, Vice President, S.C.
John Jay New York 32 December 10, 1778 September 28, 1779 293 Chief Justice New York Supreme Court
Samuel Huntington Connecticut 48 September 28, 1779 July 10, 1781 652 Associate Judge, Connecticut Superior Court
Thomas McKean Delaware 47 July 10, 1781 November 5, 1781 119 Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
John Hanson Maryland 66 November 5, 1781 November 4, 1782 365 Maryland House of Delegates
Elias Boudinot New Jersey 42 November 4, 1782 November 3, 1783 365 Commissary of Prisoners for the Continental Army
Thomas Mifflin Pennsylvania 39 November 3, 1783 June 3, 1784 214 Quartermaster General of Continental Army, Board of War
Richard Henry Lee Virginia 52 November 30, 1784 November 4, 1785 340 Virginia House of Burgesses
John Hancock Massachusetts 48 November 23, 1785 June 5, 1786 195 Governor of Massachusetts
Nathaniel Gorham Massachusetts 48 June 6, 1786 November 3, 1786 151 Board of War
Arthur St. Clair Pennsylvania 52 February 2, 1787 November 4, 1787 276 Major General, Continental Army
Cyrus Griffin Virginia 39 January 22, 1788 November 15, 1788 299 Judge, Virginia Court of Appeals
Sources for this table are Jillson and Wilson (p. 77) and the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ellis, 1.
  2. Sanders, 11.
  3. Sanders, 11–12.
  4. Sanders, 15.
  5. Sanders, 17.
  6. Sanders, 19.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Sanders, 20.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Burnett, 503.
  9. Sanders, 21, note 73.
  10. Sanders, 21.
  11. Sanders, 21–22.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Burnett, 524.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Gregory A. Stiverson, "Hanson, John, Jr.", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Sanders, 24.
  15. Sanders, 25.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Sanders, 26.
  17. Sanders, 27.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 18.6 Jillson and Wilson, 88.
  19. Sanders, 29.
  20. Sanders, 30–31.
  21. Jillson and Wilson, 71.
  22. Jillson and Wilson, 71–73.
  23. Jillson and Wilson, 75, 89.
  24. Jillson and Wilson, 77–78.
  25. Jillson and Wilson, 77.
  26. H. James Henderson. "Boudinot, Elias", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  27. Sanders, 13.
  28. Jillson and Wilson, 76, 82.
  29. Jillson and Wilson, 81.
  30. Jillson and Wilson, 76.
  31. Jillson and Wilson, 80.
  32. Jillson and Wilson, 78.
  33. Jillson and Wilson, 89.
  34. Jillson and Wilson, 82.
  35. Richard B. Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789, Harper & Row, 1987, p. 100
  36. Jillson and Wilson, 85–88.
  37. John K. Alexander, "Mifflin, Thomas", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  38. Jillson and Wilson, 87.
  39. Fowler, 191.
  40. Fowler, 199.
  41. Fowler, 230–31.
  42. Sanders, 23.
  43. Burnett, 34.
  44. Richard B. Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789, Harper & Row, 1987, p. 101.
  • Burnett, Edward Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Norton, 1941.
  • Ellis, Richard J. Founding the American Presidency. Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. ISBN 0-8476-9499-2.
  • Fowler, William M., Jr. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. ISBN 0-395-27619-5.
  • Jillson, Calvin C. and Rick K. Wilson. Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774–1789. Stanford University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8047-2293-5.
  • Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789, Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Sanders, Jennings Bryans, The Presidency of the Continental Congress 1774-89, Chicago, 1930.

External links

  • "First in Piece", article on that discounts the myth that John Hanson was the first President of the United States. Presidents of Congress have been forgotten, the authors say, because "the office wasn't one of much importance."