US Presidents Before Washington

I found this sign to be less helpful than it seems it should be.

I believe there is an adventure to be had in every place. If I don’t have an adventure, I chalk it up to my failed ability to discover it in time. One website helps me often, Atlas Obscura. Have you used it? When I travel to a place and the tourist destinations are not immediately clear, like Santa Rosa or Durham, or when I travel to a place a dozen times and I need something new, like Annapolis, I have to work a little harder to find my adventures.

I spent a few days in Annapolis last week, teaching for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. After work I found a new park with trails, I ate some awesome food and desserts, I saw the darling town, and I’ll show you photos soon. Our last day was only a half day, so I left my hotel in the outskirts and walked into the center of Annapolis to explore while I waited for my late flight back home. (The walk is boring and ugly for the first couple miles, but I found an entertaining sign, that I posted above.) Atlas Obscura suggested multiple stops, including the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, and also the Guardians of the First Amendment Memorial. The one that I enjoyed the most was the Hall of Presidents Before Washington.

The Hall of Presidents is in the front lobby of the large and impressive Westin hotel. I neglected to get photos of the Westin, or of the big lobby, or of the view down the hall. I am going to grab some images from the Internet because I think it’s helpful to imagine the place.

Anyone, guests or not, can wander into the lobby as I did, and ask where the Hall of Presidents is, and have a lovely, helpful person behind the concierge desk point them helpfully in that direction.

The display spans a hallway, as you would guess, to include a little nook with a fireplace and chairs, and additional walls adjoining the hallway. It’s a rather large exhibit for what I was expecting, covering not just people who held the title “President,” but other related bits of information, as you’ll see.

The format of each President’s display matched this one from Cyrus Griffin, the fourteenth and final man who was President of Congress. There is a brief bio, a picture, and an original document bearing the man’s signature.

The display is made up entirely of framed images and brief stories and explanations, and accompanied by original, signed documents, one for each President. The paragraphs explain a little about the person, and then a little about the significance of the document, which holds their signature which the person used while serving as President. It’s very well done.

The display says that while George Washington was the first president under the second constitution (there were two?), he was not the first president of the independent United States. Before him, there were 14 others, who held the title of President of the Continental Congress. The First and Second Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from the colonies that would become the United States. Twelve of the thirteen colonies sent a delegate (Rhode Island was not represented), and they met in Philadelphia in September-October of 1774. Philadelphia was our nation’s capital city in the beginning, and it was moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800.

Years of fighting and dying.

Peyton Randolph was the first and the third President of Congress, serving in 1774 and 1775. Naturally these independent actions by the colonies coincided with the Revolutionary War, so Randolph and his successors were wartime presidents.

Henry Middleton served in the middle of Randolph’s two terms, and interestingly for only four days. Third was the famous John Hancock. Only four of the fourteen served a year or more. It must have been a tumultuous time in politics.

John Hancock and his famous signature.

Next were Henry Laurens, John Jay, and Samuel Huntington. Then Thomas McKean, and John Hanson, followed by my favourite: Elias Boudinot. In fact, the very first plaque I stopped to read happened to belong to Mr. Boudinot, and I was instantly delighted. I did not recognize the photo, but I was certain that I knew the name Elias Boudinot as a Cherokee citizen.

Elias Boudinot, ninth President of the Continental Congress.

Boudinot received his law degree at Princeton, achieved the rank of Colonel in the Continental Army, and served the Provincial Congress of New Jersey before serving the Continental Congress. He is the one who sent a delegation to France to negotiate the Treaty of Paris. I read every word of the plaque associated with the man, but it does not say he is Cherokee. So I investigated. Young  ᎦᎴᎩᎾ ᎤᏩᏘ, Gallegina Uwati, met Elias Boudinot and the two appreciated each other. The elder became the young man’s mentor and the young man (who was using the names David Uwatie and Buck Watie at the time) asked and received permission to use his name. So the Cherokee Elias Boudinot that I know is NOT the Elias Boudinot who was President, but rather his protege.

The Treaty of Paris Period connects the Revolution to the Constitution. Click to enlarge.
Information about the Treaty of Paris Period. Click to enlarge.

Sorry for all the text above. I posted those so you could read if you want to. Basically, it explains that a lot of stuff was going on at this period in world political history. The colonies were separating from Great Britain, they owed money to everyone, they were bound by negotiated treaties, and they were simultaneously trying to start a new country. Some of the biggest names were in the thick of it: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, as well as former “Presidents” I am not so familiar with, like John Jay, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Mifflin.

Thomas Mifflin was the tenth President of Congress, who received Washington’s resignation. Next was Richard H. Lee, Nathanial Gorham, and then Arthur St. Clair. Segments of the population were angrily opposed to the direction the new country was taking, and particularly angry about enforced debt collection. One of the most significant uprisings was Shays’s Rebellion that began during Gorham’s term. Arthur St. Clair was President of Congress when Shays’s Rebellion was put down.

Shays’s Rebellion shut down some county courts and attempted to seize the federal armory before being stopped.
“Having finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of action.”

George Washington resigned about this time, too. It was a very big deal and it happened right here in Annapolis. Asked to be the next monarch of the new country decades earlier, Washington had refused to participate. When later asked to be President instead, the military general and war hero was willing to serve. Washington held true to the ideal that the new country would be a democracy. He believed that a military should serve the civil government, and thus his resignation of his commission at the conclusion of the war was intentional signaling of this stance.

After St. Clair, we had President Cyrus Griffin, the final President of Congress, serving until November 1788. His framed plaque is at the top of the post. In March 1789 the Constitution was ratified, and in April 1789, George Washington took office as the first President of the United States.

George Washington, the President I *have* heard of.

The walls contained more than just the fourteen, as I mentioned. I wandered around and read about other interesting facts that I hardly knew anything about.

A list of the British colonies in North America that did NOT declare independence.
Ben Franklin: a man with his fingers in every pot.
Framed paper bank notes from the earliest days.

I enjoyed looking at the examples of very old paper money. The plaque states that “Colonial American Notes were the first ever officially authorized paper money by a Western world government.” Originally, they were printed in 1690 to help fund King William’s War. Later the paper notes were used for other nation-building expenses, which also led to the first banks created.

After an hour I had seen enough and showed myself to the door, and continued walking toward downtown Annapolis.

8 thoughts on “US Presidents Before Washington

    1. It’s curious how much of this was unknown to me. I wonder if it was intentionally left out of my schoolbooks, or if it was considered too much extra detail. Conducting a revolution and starting a new country obviously would be very expensive and tumultuous, so all that I learned here makes sense to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s