This book, The First Executives: Lives and Events in the Shadow of the American Revolution, presents a view of American history that has been almost completely forgotten. It is about a period of American history that has almost been obliterated by the focus on the events surrounding the Revolutionary War. During this time America had a guiding leadership in place that was responsible for forming many of the structures and procedures that we have in our government today. These early chief executives were the visionaries and originators of many of our ideas that we take for granted today. Through their contributions the development of the Presidency took place—and with it the destiny of the United States.
The position of a President was initiated from precursor intercolonial gatherings that were conducted under the Albany Congress of 1754 and the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. In the Albany Congress Benjamin Franklin made a formal presentation of a plan for creating a union to the colonial delegates. Franklin’s plan was a design of a union of all of the colonies under a single government, with each colony preserving its right of local independence and separate sovereignty of each colony. The plan included the provision of a single president to be in charge of this union.
The Stamp Act Congress was called to support an intercolonial meeting on the issue of the Stamp Act. Nine colonies assembled as an intercolonial congress to deal with the agenda of the Stamp Act of 1765, the Currency Act of 1764 which forbade the colonies to issue any new paper currency and the loss of the right to trial by jury in the Vice-Admiralty courts. When the Stamp Act Congress convened in New York City, New York on October 7, 1765, the first event associated with this meeting was that a President of this body, Timothy Ruggles, was elected to preside over the affairs that were to be conducted by this congress. Ruggles thus became the precursor chief executive of a set of Presidents who were subsequently to lead both the First and Second Continental Congresses a decade later.
A formally elected President of the United States, Peyton Randolph, came into being when the first functioning central government started with the First Continental Congress that convened in September 5, 1774, at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The purpose of the First Continental Congress was to debate the issues that were confronting the colonies under British policies. The intent of the sessions was to propose a plan of action in response to the British activities.
The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 10, 1775, for the purpose of discussing the sovereignty of America. In its first action the delegates unanimously elected Peyton Randolph again to be the chief executive of the body. The Second Continental Congress was formed for the purpose of obtaining redress from Great Britain of American grievances and to both recover and establish American rights and liberties that would be recognized by England.
More Presidents were elected in the Second Continental Congress with John Hancock following as the next President. The formal sessions ended in October 1788 with Cyrus Griffin being the last elected President of the Continental Congress. An interim caretaker government continued under the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, until March 2, 1789. Since George Washington was not inaugurated as the first Constitutional President until April 30, 1789, there is a fifteen-year period in which the President of the Continental Congress—or the Chairman in the role of President pro tempore—acted as the chief executive officer and as head of state of the government of the United States.
Too little credit has been given to the creation of the executive functions and the role of each of the chief executives during this Revolutionary War and post-revolutionary period. Mostly forgotten in the annals of the history of the United States, these first executives were very important in leading the delegations of the Congress. The Presidency had vast responsibilities and taxing administrative burdens. Many crucial decisions were made during this period even though the central government had very little authority or enforcement capability. But, without the issuance of policy statements by the Continental Congress, and without the interest of a dedicated leader of the Continental Congress, then the United States—as we know it today—would not have come into being. In a setting for a Continental Congress that was created in an emergency, that was endowed with little or no authority, and that was plagued by rapid changes of delegate attendees, it is the deeds of these first executives that helped the nation to survive during its struggle in adversity.
When the Continental Congress was formed it initially underwent a great struggle because of the internal conflicts among the various delegates on how to proceed. The chief executives help to keep the organization intact, kept the proceedings true to the purpose for which the Congress was organized, and changed through agreement any impediments that were preventing the Congress from working as intended. These chief executives were also very instrumental in guiding the Congress as it evolved during these critical formative years. Through their leadership they were the ones who were most responsible for shaping the course—and destiny of the nation. In short, these early "trial-by-fire" experiences were the foundation upon which both the context and the content of this nation were formed. In the process of these events, the office of the President was also defined.
The synopsis of the line of chief executives covers a period of 15 years, from 1774 to 1789. The first President to be elected was Peyton Randolph in 1774. Under his term the first Constitution of the nation was formulated—the Continental Association. Henry Middleton was the first one to succeed the President when Randolph was recalled back to Virginia. John Hancock became the first long term President in 1775. Under his leadership the second Constitution of the nation came into being—the Declaration of Independence. John Laurens was the next President in 1777. He was in office when the dark times of the American Revolution were taking place. The third Constitution—the Articles of Confederation—also came into being during his term.
John Jay had to deal with severe domestic and foreign issues, including the lack of money to conduct the war. He was also President in 1778 when the treason of General Benedict Arnold began. The next President, Samuel Huntington was the first to serve under the Articles of Confederation. He was the person who served the longest in office, a total of almost 22 months, from 1779 to 1781. During his administration the lowest point in the revolutionary War was experienced, including the worst of a very severe financial crisis and a very low morale within the Continental Army. Thomas McKean was also President in 1781. During his term in office, the defining victory over the British was achieved at Yorktown, Virginia by General George Washington’s forces. Mckean was also the first President who was forced to resign from office.
In 1781, John Hanson became the first President to be elected under the ratified Articles of Confederation. He served until the end of 1782. During his administration he established many of the precedents that are in existence today in our federal government. The next President, Elias Boudinot, was chief executive in 1783 when representatives of both America and England signed the preliminary Treaty of Paris. Thomas Mifflin was the next chief executive who served for the first half of 1784 when the Committee of the States was formed. Samuel Hardy served as the Chairman of the Committee of the States, the effective government of the United States for several months in 1784