Magazine article Scandinavian Review

The First First President

Magazine article Scandinavian Review

The First First President

Article excerpt

ON ONE LEVEL, IT'S A JOKEY QUESTION-THE KIND THAT, for example, wins bar bets for those who know that, because of signing formalities, July 9, July 15 or August 2 could have been designated Independence Day in the United States as logically as July 4. But the identity of the real first President of the United States? C'mon now. Maybe what everybody has learned in grade school might deserve a fussy footnote, but who would sensibly recognize anybody but George Washington as this country's first chief-ofstate? Well, for starters, George Washington himself.

As adepts of Ripley's Believe It or Not have already guessed, what prompts this consideration is John Hanson, whose role in American history has shifted over the centuries from the documented to the legendary to the forgotten to the politically inconvenient while all along school children have been told they were better off concentrating on little boys who couldn't tell lies after they had chopped down cherry trees. And as with other Ripley pronouncements, mere mention of Hanson's name as the true first president can elicit groans among the smugly learned. If there was any truth to that story, they carp, why haven't I heard about it before now? In fact, they have, but just didn't think it important enough to launch a campaign to have John Hanson depicted on the one-dollar bill. To make matters worse, that oversight has also helped obscure Hanson's pivotal role in developments that led to the colonial rebellion against England.

And in that context a related subject that also habitually gets neglected: If the colonists achieved definitive victory in the Revolution with the surrender of General Cornwallis's troops at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, who was running things for the better part of a decade before Washington's inauguration in 1789? What exactly were those Articles of Confederation passed by the Continental Congress that we memorized in sixth grade and what did they mean for the fledgling nation? Something must have been going on in those eight years. And why did Alexander Hamilton so dislike what it was that he abetted Hanson's push to the margins of American history?

For sheer name reasons, distinguishing hanson posed difficulties even before he fell into Washington's shadow. His oldest recorded forbears date to the 16th century in London, where a John Hanson with an English accent initiated a line that in just about every succeeding generation spawned another John. Toward the end of the century John's son John took a vacation in Sweden where he fell in love with Margaret Vasa, granddaughter of the Vasa line of kings. What he was hardly in a position to realize was that centuries later this would precipitate a scholarly dispute about the "Englishness" or "Swedishness" of the clan's descendants in America.. One way or the other, the Hanson smitten with Margaret Vasa settled in Stockholm with his wife and had a son baptized (spoiler alert) John. This John Hanson became attached to the staff of his cousin, King Gustavus Adolphus II. In 1638 Gustavus began his explorations of Delaware Bay that would culminate in the settling of what would be called New Sweden. Among those sailing the Atlantic to reach the new territory were cousin Hanson's four sons, three of whom were not named John. The one who was so named gravitated from Kent Island to St. Mary's, along the way fathering four sons and three daughters of his own. The John who would have a capricious relationship with American history was born in Port Tobacco province on April 3, 1715, at Mulberry Grove, a 1,000-acre plantation owned by his wealthy father, curiously enough named Samuel.

No more angelic than the Washingtons and Jeffersons of the day, the Hansons relied heavily on slavery for their wealth. But father Samuel was equally visible in Maryland's political forums-a bestriding of private and public sectors that his son would emulate up to the conflict with England in the 1770s. Already conspicuous for chairing committees that warned Great Britain away from Maryland, John Hanson took a more decisive political step in 1774 by sending relief funds to Massachusetts after the imposition of the Boston Port Bill that closed the city's harbors. …

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