If you type the question “How many U.S. presidents have there been?” into any search engine, you will quickly get a flurry of answers that tell you Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States. In this era of uncertainty, it probably shouldn’t surprise you that this is, by no means, a settled issue. Depending on how you count things, he may be the 44th, 45th, 66th, or even 78th president. Just in case you need a little more uncertainty in your life, read on and find out how this could be.
Let’s start with something universally accepted: George Washington was the first president. Or was he? Washington was sworn in on April 30, 1789, becoming the first person to hold the office of president under the newly-ratified Constitution. Prior to that, however, things get a little complicated.
Presidents Under the Articles of Confederation
The United States declared its independence on July 4, 1776. (Actually, it might more properly be July 2. Read this for more details.) At that time, the governing authority for the new nation was the Continental Congress. Aside from a Declaration of Independence, there wasn’t much in terms of legislation to govern the fledgling country. Coming up with a framework of government became the first order of business for the Continental Congress.
After much debate and compromise, the Articles of Confederation were approved by the second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. The document was then sent off to the states and required unanimous approval from them for it to go into effect. That took a bit of time. It wasn’t until March 1, 1781, that Maryland became the thirteenth and final state to give its approval. On that date, the United States finally had an official — if deeply flawed — national system of government.
With the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the Second Continental Congress ceased to exist and became, instead, the Congress of the Confederation. All official proceedings of the Official Journal of Congress from that point forward bore the heading, “The United States in Congress Assembled.”
Just as the previously-chosen delegates to the Continental Congress continued in the new government with a new title, so did their presiding officer. For that reason, on March 1, 1781, the President of Continental Congress, Samuel Huntington, assumed office as “the President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”
The office to which Huntington entered was considerably different from today’s presidency. It was largely ceremonial, with primary responsibilities being that of moderating debate during sessions of Congress and signing official correspondence on the body’s behalf.
President Huntington’s administration was brief. The presidency may not have had the awesome responsibilities of today, but it apparently still took a toll on the man. Within two months of becoming president, Huntington’s health began to fail. On July 6, 1781, he tendered his resignation. The United States in Congress Assembled Journals reported: “The President having informed the United States in Congress assembled, that his ill state of health … not permit him to continue longer in the exercise of the duties of that office.”
So, it appears that Samuel Huntington should properly have the honor of being the first President of the United States, right? Well… it gets even more complicated.
On July 9, 1781, Congress elected Huntington’s successor. North Carolina representative Samuel Johnston was the choice of the delegates, and he was elected as the second President of the United States in Congress Assembled. Since Huntington became president by virtue of the fact that he was already in that position at the time the Articles were ratified, Johnston became the first person to be elected as President of the United States in Congress Assembled.
We can, therefore, confidently say that Samuel Johnston was the first elected President of the United States in Congress Assembled. Hold on…. It’s not quite that cut and dry. Johnston had his eyes on another prize. He much preferred the office of governor of North Carolina, so he declined the office. He was elected as president, but he never assumed the duties.
In light of Johnston’s declination of the election, on July 10, Congress elected his successor. Delaware representative Thomas McKean was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and was an obvious choice. Upon taking office, he became the second President of the United States in Congress Assembled.
The biggest triumph of the McKean administration came when he received word from George Washington that General Charles Cornwallis had surrended at Yorktown, bringing the Revolutionary War to an official end.
McKean’s presidency, like his successors, was brief. Having been elected on July 10, he served less than four months. He had the opportunity to run as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president in the election of 1804, but he declined. He said, upon declining the nomination, that being “President of the United States in Congress Assembled in the year of 1781 (a proud year for Americans) equaled any merit or pretensions of mine and cannot now be increased by the office of Vice President.”
All of this means, of course, that we can now confidently say that Thomas McKean was the second President of the United States in Congress Assembled, the second person elected as such, and the first elected person to actually assume the duties of President of the United States in Congress Assembled. Except… You guessed it. It’s even more complicated.
McKean may have been the second person elected under the Articles of Confederation, but he was not elected by a Congress that had been chosen under the Articles. From the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in March until the states could send newly-qualified representatives, the hold-overs from the Continental Congress kept things running. It wasn’t until November 5, 1781, that Congress convened, for the first time consisting of representatives chosen under the terms of the Articles of Confederation.
McKean may have thought the presidency was the pinnacle of his career, but Hanson thought otherwise Despite receiving a letter from George Washington, congratulating him on his “appointment to fill the most important seat in the United States,” Hanson was less than enamored with the trappings of office. He found the job so tedious that after one week he decided to resign. That’s when he discovered he didn’t even have the power to quit. Congress lacked a quorum, and the Articles did not provide for any kind of automatic succession, so he was forced to serve out his term out of a sense of duty and futility. He did, however, actually receive Cornwallis’ sword from Washington, in one of the most impressive moments in United States history. He also issued a proclamation, declaring the last Thursday of November as an official day of Thanksgiving, so it wasn’t a total loss.
So, just to make sure we are all on the same page, we can say that Samuel Huntington was the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled. Samuel Johnston was the first person elected as President of the United States in Congress Assembled. Thomas McKean was the first person elected to that office to actually assume the duties. John Hanson was the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled to be elected by a Congress fully empowered by the Articles of Confederation.
So, does that mean that George Washington is the first, fourth, or fifth President of the United States? Don’t start counting too quickly, because there are a few others who fill in the gap between the Hanson and Washington administrations. From the time Hanson left office until George Washington’s inauguration, the office of President of the United States in Congress Assembled was held by:
- Elias Boudinot — November 4, 1782 – November 3, 1783
- Thomas Mifflin — November 3, 1783 – June 3, 1784
- Richard Henry Lee — November 30, 1784 – November 4, 1785
- John Hancock — November 23, 1785 – June 5, 1786
- Nathaniel Gorham — June 6, 1786 – November 3, 1786
- Arthur St. Clair — February 2, 1787 – November 4, 1787
- Cyrus Griffin — January 22, 1788 – November 15, 1788
All told, before George Washington took office, there were 10 men who held the office. Depending on where you place Samuel Johnston in the list, George Washington may have been the 11th or 12th president of the fledgling country.
Presidents Under the Constitution
That’s why it’s probably best to just start from scratch with the ratification of the Constitution. After all, not only are the responsibilities of the presidency different but so is the title. John Adams proposed the chief executive be called “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” Congress decided otherwise and declared that the official title of the chief executive would be the “President of the United States,” not “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”
Following that line of thought, with George Washington as the first president, then Donald Trump must be the 45th. Don’t be so quick to put this matter to rest, though. As before, this is somewhat complicated.
Then there is the somewhat tricky issue of how to count the two non-consecutive terms of Grover Cleveland. His two terms of office, March 4, 1885 – March 4, 1889, and March 4, 1893 – March 4, 1897, have earned him, by most accounts, the honor of being the 22nd and 24th president.
Term Counting Controversy
Not everyone agrees with this numbering system, however. One notable opponent to counting him twice was a man who had a stake in the outcome of the debate: Harry Truman. Truman, who served as president from 1945 to 1953, gave a lot of thought to the matter and reached the conclusion that “If you count the administrations of Grover Cleveland twice because another president held office between Cleveland’s first and second term, you might try to justify the designation of me as 33rd President. But then why don’t you number all the second terms of other Presidents and the third and fourth terms of President Roosevelt, and where will you be? I am the 32nd President.”
Even this is a matter of controversy. Despite Truman’s confident assertion about the proper numbering, his official proclamation concerning the death of his predecessor identified FDR as the 32nd president.
Consider for a moment Truman’s counterargument, that counting each of Cleveland’s terms as worthy of a separate number means that each of the other presidents’ terms should be similarly numbered. Thirty-three men, including Trump, have served a single or partial term of office. Another twenty have served a full term and at least part of a second term. One man served three full terms and part of a fourth. All told, there have been 66 presidential terms of office prior to the incumbent. That would make Donald Trump the 67th President of the United States. (Or the 68th, if you count Atchison).
Where does that leave us? Depending on which system you subscribe to, the current occupant of the Oval Office is either the 44th, 45th, 46th, 56th, 57th, 67th, 68th, 77th, or 78th President of the United States.
Aren’t you glad we cleared that up?
Read about the difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom.
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