Jump to content

President of the Continental Congress

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
President of the United States in Congress Assembled
Continental Congress
StatusPresiding officer
AppointerVote within the Congress
FormationSeptember 5, 1774 (1774-09-05)
First holderPeyton Randolph
Final holderCyrus Griffin
AbolishedNovember 2, 1788 (1788-11-02)

The president of the United States in Congress Assembled, known unofficially as the president of the Continental Congress and later as president of the Congress of the Confederation, was the presiding officer of the Continental Congress, the convention of delegates that assembled in Philadelphia 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 and Perpetual Union, which served as new first constitution of the U.S. in March 1781, the Continental Congress became the Congress of the Confederation, and membership from the Second Continental Congress, along with its president, carried over without interruption to the First Congress of the Confederation.

Fourteen men served as president of Congress between September 1774 and November 1788. They came from nine 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).[2]


By design, the president of the Continental Congress was a position with limited 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 prodded 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 John 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 Thomas 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 Richard Henry 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 John Hanson (November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782).[7][31]

List of presidents[edit]

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

Portrait Name State/colony Term Length Previous position
Peyton Randolph
Randolph, PeytonPeyton Randolph
VirginiaSeptember 5, 1774

October 22, 1774
47 daysSpeaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
Henry Middleton
Middleton, HenryHenry Middleton
South CarolinaOctober 22, 1774

October 26, 1774
4 daysSpeaker, S.C. Commons House of Assembly
Peyton Randolph
Randolph, PeytonPeyton Randolph
VirginiaMay 10, 1775

May 24, 1775
14 daysSpeaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
John Hancock
Hancock, JohnJohn Hancock
MassachusettsMay 24, 1775

October 29, 1777
2 years, 158 daysPresident, Massachusetts Provincial Congress
Henry Laurens
Laurens, HenryHenry Laurens
South CarolinaNovember 1, 1777

December 9, 1778
1 year, 38 daysPresident, S.C. Provincial Congress, Vice President, S.C.
John Jay
Jay, JohnJohn Jay
New YorkDecember 10, 1778

September 28, 1779
292 daysChief Justice New York Supreme Court
Samuel Huntington
Huntington, SamuelSamuel Huntington
ConnecticutSeptember 28, 1779

July 10, 1781
1 year, 285 daysAssociate Judge, Connecticut Superior Court
Thomas McKean
McKean, ThomasThomas McKean
DelawareJuly 10, 1781

November 5, 1781
118 daysChief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
John Hanson
Hanson, JohnJohn Hanson
MarylandNovember 5, 1781

November 4, 1782
364 daysMaryland House of Delegates
Elias Boudinot
Boudinot, EliasElias Boudinot
New JerseyNovember 4, 1782

November 3, 1783
364 daysCommissary of Prisoners for the Continental Army
Thomas Mifflin
Mifflin, ThomasThomas Mifflin
PennsylvaniaNovember 3, 1783

June 3, 1784
213 daysQuartermaster General of Continental Army, Board of War
Richard Henry Lee
Lee, RichardRichard Henry Lee
VirginiaNovember 30, 1784

November 4, 1785
339 daysVirginia House of Burgesses
John Hancock
Hancock, JohnJohn Hancock
MassachusettsNovember 23, 1785

June 5, 1786
194 daysGovernor of Massachusetts
Nathaniel Gorham
Gorham, NathanielNathaniel Gorham
MassachusettsJune 6, 1786

February 2, 1787
241 daysBoard of War
Arthur St. Clair
St.Clair, ArthurArthur St. Clair
PennsylvaniaFebruary 2, 1787

November 4, 1787
275 daysMajor General, Continental Army
Cyrus Griffin
Griffin, CyrusCyrus Griffin
VirginiaJanuary 22, 1788

November 2, 1788
298 daysJudge, Virginia Court of Appeals

Relationship to the president of the United States[edit]

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:

The 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]

Nonetheless, the presidents of the Continental Congress and the presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled are sometimes claimed to have been president before George Washington as if the offices were equivalent.[34] The continuous nature of the Continental Congresses and Congress under the Articles also allows for multiple claims of being the "first president of the United States." This would include Peyton Randolph as president of the First Continental Congress, John Hancock as president when the Declaration of Independence was signed, Samuel Huntington as president when the Articles were ratified and took effect, Thomas McKean as the first president elected under the Articles, and John Hanson as the first president under the Articles to serve the prescribed one-year term. Hanson's grandson's campaign to name Hanson the "first president of the United States" was successful in having 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] Presumably due to this campaign, Hanson is often still dubiously listed as the first president of Congress under the Articles.[35]

The function of the president of the Continental Congress may be more akin to that of a vice president's constitutional role as the president of the United States Senate.[36][37]


Drawing of the original 1782 Great Seal of the United States

Shortly after the creation of the first die for the Great Seal of the United States, the Congress of the Confederation ordered a smaller seal for the use of the President of the Congress. It was a small oval, with the crest from the Great Seal (the radiant constellation of thirteen stars surrounded by clouds) in the center, with the motto E Pluribus Unum above it. Benson Lossing claimed it was used by all the Presidents of the Congress after 1782, probably to seal envelopes on correspondence sent to the Congress, though only examples from Thomas Mifflin are documented.[38][39][40] This seal's use did not pass over to the new government in 1789.

See also[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.
  34. ^ "Did you know about the many US 'presidents' before George Washington?". History is Now Magazine, Podcasts, Blog and Books | Modern International and American history.
  35. ^ "Articles of Confederation, US Constitution, Constitution Day Materials, Pocket Constitution Book, Bill of Rights". www.constitutionfacts.com.
  36. ^ "John Hanson - One of America's Founding Fathers". The Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia. December 30, 2020. Retrieved January 1, 2024.
  37. ^ Prakash, Saikrishna Bangalore (May 26, 2015). Imperial from the Beginning: The Constitution of the Original Executive. Yale University Press. "While subsequent chapters consider the extent of presidential authority, it must be noted that not all presidents have meaningful authority. The Constitution proves as much. The vice president serves as the Senate’s “president,” meaning that he may chair its meetings. Additionally, he may break ties in Senate votes. If the president presided in the manner of the president of the Senate, the Article II presidency would be more about procedures and ceremony than about the exercise of power. The nation’s first “presidents” had more in common with our vice president. As early as 1774, the Continental Congress appointed a delegate to serve as “president.” He presided over deliberations, handled official communications, received and entertained foreign ambassadors, and took ceremonial precedence over other delegates. Despite the office’s narrow scope of authority, the Articles imposed term limits. No delegate could serve as president for more than one year in every three, a curb that likely reflected an acute (and excessive) concern with monarchy."
  38. ^ Totten, C.A.L. (1897). The Seal of History. New Haven, Connecticut: The Our Race Publishing Co.
  39. ^ Lossing, Benson J. (July 1856). "Great Seal of the United States". Harper's New Monthly Magazine. 13 (74): 184–5. hdl:2027/uc1.c065162776. They also ordered a smaller seal for the use of the President of the Congress. It was small oval about an inch in length, the centre covered with clouds surrounding a space of open sky, on which were seen thirteen stars.
  40. ^ "The eagle and the shield : a history of the great seal of the United States". archive.org. 1978.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]