The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

The American Presidents BEFORE George Washington

Presidents Before The Constitution

The American Revolution was a counter-revolution against the encroachment of the British Parliament. The independence movement released the thirteen colonies from foreign control. It is important to remember the American Revolution was a battle between Britain and the thirteen individually sovereign states, each with their own state governments. During the War, the state legislatures granted enumerated portions of their own limited sovereignty to an entity called the Continental Congress.

A congressman was elected by the other delegates to serve as this body’s President-his role was largely as an impartial moderator. Later in the war, the States transferred more responsibilities to the central government in the Articles of Confederation (1781). This stood as the nation’s first established constitution until the Constitutional Convention ratified the current U.S. Constitution in 1788.

Fourteen Presidents Before George Washington

George Washington was the first President to be elected under the 1788 Constitution Model. While many know of George Washington, the Presidents under the Continental Congress are largely unknown to modern Americans. They were men of great moral vigor, who stood strong for liberty, and held at the center of their ambition the glory of God.

Below is a list of the pre-constitution Presidents, along with inspiring quotes from these men who did not shy away from leadership when times were trying.

First Continental Congress

Peyton Randolph, Virginia (Sept 1774 – Oct 1774)

Often called the “father of our country,” the courageous Peyton Randolph led the charge against the Stamp Act as one of the most revolutionary Patriots. He also intitated the practice of prayer before conducting of government business.

In a letter to British General Thomas Cage, Randolph protests his occupation of Boston,

“Your Excellency cannot be a stranger to the sentiments of America with respect to the Acts of Parliament, under the execution of which those unhappy people are oppressed, the approbation universally expressed of their conduct, and the determined resolution of the Colonies, for the preservation of their common rights to unite in their opposition to those Acts. In consequence of these sentiments, they have appointed us the guardians of their rights and liberties…” [1]

Henry Middleton, South Carolina (October 1774)

Only serving four days, Middleton resigned in opposition to independence to Great Britian. He was succeeded in Congress by his son, Arthur Middleton (1742–1787), who was more radical than his father and became a signer of the Declaration of Independence.[2] Middleton’s first official act, was to execute a letter as President supporting the efforts of oppressed colonists. In the letter Middleton wrote,

“So rapidly violent and unjust has been the late conduct of the British Administration against the colonies, that either a base and slavish submission, under the loss of their ancient, just, and constitutional liberty, must quickly take place, or an adequate opposition be formed.” [3]

Second Continental Congress

John Hancock, Massachusetts (May 1775 – October 1777)

Hancock was President of the Congress when the Declaration of Independence was prepared. He was the first to sign what most men understood to be a note of their own death. The Declaration was received as treasonous by the British, making the signers traitors to the crown.

“In circumstances dark as these, it becomes us, as Men and Christians, to reflect that, whilst every prudent Measure should be taken to ward off the impending Judgements….All confidence must be withheld from the Means we use; and reposed only on that GOD who rules in the Armies of Heaven, and without whose Blessing the best human Counsels are but Foolishness–and all created Power Vanity…” [4]

Henry Laurens, South Carolina (November  1777 – December 1778)

Henry Laurens’s ancestors were French Protestants who were members of the Reformed Church established in 1550 by John Calvin. After serving as the President of Congress, Laurens went on to serve as a minister to the Netherlands. His work towards a US-Dutch treaty sparked the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, for which he was was taken prisoner and is the only American to have been held prisoner in the Tower of London.

Laurens first official act as the President was to preside over and vote for a Day of Thanksgiving and “to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God.” In his first official letter to the States as President he wrote:

“Dear Sir, The Arms of the United States of America having been blessed in the present Campaign with remarkable Success, Congress have Resolved to recommend that one day, Thursday the 18th December next be Set apart to be observed by all Inhabitants throughout these States for a General thanksgiving to Almighty God…so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

John Jay, New York (December 1778 – September 28)

Jay served America in several prestigous capacities; as the President of the Congress, a minister to Spain and France, and went on to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He co-wrote the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

“It certainly is very desirable that a pacific disposition should prevail among all nations. The most effectual way of producing it, is by extending the prevalence and influence of the gospel. Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war.

Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” [5]

Congress of the Confederation

Samuel Huntington, Connecticut (September  1779 – July 1781)

After John Jay left to be a minister in Spain, Samuel Huntington was elected to be the President of  the Congress. His primary role was to urge states to financially support the Revolutionary War efforts. It was during his term that the Articles of Confederation were drafted and ratified. The first section of the Articles of Confederation designated our nation as the “United States” for the first time. Some argue that this makes Samuel Huntington the first president of the United States.

“While the great body of freeholders are acquainted with the duties which they owe to their God, to themselves, and to men, they will remain free. But if ignorance and depravity should prevail, they will inevitably lead to slavery and ruin.” [6]

Thomas McKean, Delaware (July  1781 – November 1781)

In addition to serving as President of the United States, he was also President of Delaware, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and Governor of Pennsylvania. During his time in office, Lord Cornwallis’s British army surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the war.

“There are some amongst us, who are so fond of having a great and powerful man to look up to, that, tho’ they may not like the name of King, seem anxious to confer kingly powers, under the titles of Dictator, Superintendent of Finance, or some such…” [7]

John Hanson, Maryland (November 1781 – November 1782)

Hanson, a Lutheran, helped establish the U.S. mint and created the position of Chairman of Congress, which was the predecessor to the vice-presidency. During his term as President, the soon to be President George Washington presented Cornwallis’s sword to Hanson in Congress. In his Thanksgiving address, Hanson declared that he,

“recommend to all ranks to testify their gratitude to God for His goodness by a cheerful obedience to His laws and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.” [8]

Elias Boudinot, New Jersey (November 1782 – November 1783)

Boudinot was selected as President to serve from 1782 to 1783. He served as a U.S. Congressman and then later as the Director of the United State Mint. Elias Boudinot was a longtime member of the board of trustees for what became Princeton University.

“You have been instructed from your childhood in the knowledge of your lost state by nature, the absolute necessity of a change of heart, and an entire renovation of soul to the image of Jesus Christ, of salvation thro’ His meritorious righteousness only, and the indispensable necessity of personal holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.” [9]

Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania (November 1783 – June 1784)

After serving as major general in the Continental Army during the war, he served as a congressman and President. After his time in congress, he followed Benjamin Franklin as the President of Pennsylvania and then served as the state’s first Governor.

“There can be no right to power, except what is either founded upon, or speedily obtains the hearty consent of the body of the people”

Richard Henry Lee, Virginia (November 1784 – November 1785)

Richard Henry Lee is the great-uncle of the Christian hero and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Years earlier, it was Richard Henry Lee that led the motion calling for independence.

“If Parliament may take from me one shilling in the pound, what security have I for the other nineteen?”

John Hancock, Massachusetts (November 1785 – June 5, 1786)

Congress had declined in importance after the Revolutionary War, and was frequently ignored by the states. Congress elected Hancock to serve as its president, but he never attended because of his poor health. He sent Congress a letter of resignation in 1786.

Nathaniel Gorham, Massachusetts (June 1786 – November 1786)

Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts was a strong Federalist, meaning he wanted a strong central government over the new nation. Serving in the Congress of the Confederation, he was a strong advocate for his state to ratify the Constitution. He served two terms in the Congress, first in 1782 and 1783, then in 1785 to 1787. He wrote that he did not believe the United States would last as a country, which is interesting considering Gorham was also the only President who could trace his lineage to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620.

“Any person chosen governor, or lieutenant-governor, counsellor, senator, or representative, and accepting the trust, shall before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, take, make and subscribe the following declaration, viz. “I, ___________, do declare, that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth.”

Arthur St. Clair, Pennsylvania (February 1787 – November 1787)

St. Clair was a member of the Pennsylvania Council of Censors in 1783, and was elected as a delegate to the Congress. On February 2, 1787, the delegates elected St. Clair to a one-year term as President. Under St. Clair, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance which claimed new territory for the United States. The new Federal land extended from lands south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River. Later, St. Clair was made governor of what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, along with parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“I hold that no man has a right to withhold his services when his country needs them. Be the sacrifice ever so great, it must be yielded upon the altar of patriotism.” [10]

Cyrus Griffin, Virginia (January 1788 – November 1788)

Griffin was a lawyer and judge who served as the last President of the Congress. He resigned after the ratification of the Constitution rendered the old Congress obsolete, and was later a United States Federal Judge. Like Laurens, he could also trace his ancestors to those brave souls who fled the Protestant persecution that culminated in King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

“My family are the great object I have in contemplation, and if this promotion in its consequences shall redound to the advantage of my children my utmost wishes will be accomplished, so far as private considerations are permitted to operate; at all times and upon all occasions I would sacrifice my ease to their emolument.” [11]

It should be recognized that America’s pre-Constitution heritage is Christian, Reformed, and dedicated to preserving liberty. In looking to America’s early history we see men who applied the entirety of Scripture to the realm of civil government.  Unlike Christians today, our nation’s founders were not afraid of the laws in the Bible. Men like Patrick Henry and George Mason understood that biblical law is a two-edged sword of God’s judgment: blessing for the righteous, but cursing for the unrighteous (Rom. 13:1-7).

May we learn to model our lives in a way that reflects every area after God’s perfect word.

Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit and a link is given.

Footnotes:

1. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875, Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 1
2. John G. Van Deusen, “Middleton, Henry”, Dictionary of American Biography (revised edition, New York: Scribner’s, 1961)
3. William Griffith, Historical notes of the American colonies and revolution: from 1754 to 1775, 1843
4. William Joseph Federer, America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations, 1994
5. Letter to John Murray (12 October 1816) as published in The Life of John Jay (1833) by William Jay, Vol. 2, p. 376
6. Jonathan Elliot, Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution”,   Vol. II, p. 200, 1836
7. Stanley L Klos, The Rise of the U. S. Presidency: And the Forgotten Capitols, 2008
8. Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 23, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1914
9. Kenneth Clifton, Official Government Recognition of God: All Presidents, All States, Etc., 2008
10. William Henry Smith, The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair
11. Thomas Patrick Chorlton, The First American Republic 1774-1789: The First Fourteen American Presidents Before Washington, 2011

 

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