Was The First President of the United States a Black Man?
A series of memes have been circulating on the internet for over a decade, which claim that the first president of the United States was a man named John Hanson and that this president was also a Black man.
Most notably, a website called "Liberty Writers Africa" posted an article last year, which was taken almost word-for-word from the late comedian Dick Gregory's website.
Every part of the now-deleted article by "Liberty Writers Africa" was virtually the same as the article that appeared on Dick Gregory's website. The only real difference is that more pictures and memes were added.
Based on its earliest screen capture from the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, Dick Gregory's article has been on the internet since at least February 2015.
You can see it here.
It may be that Dick Gregory did his research before he came to his conclusions, but now it's our turn.
Let's see what we can learn about the man, the myth, and the legend of John Hanson.
The American John Hanson
It is true that a man named John Hanson was one of the very first de-facto presidents of the United States.
He was the first to be elected as a political leader after the nation's first constitution - the Articles of Confederation - was ratified by a group of representatives from all of the former colonies on March 1, 1781.
This group, referred to as the Second Continental Congress, was the same group of politicians who issued the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. However, this was a mere declaration of the nation's intent and reasoning behind forming a new government.
When British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781, it was this event which signaled the end of the Revolutionary War, and which truly solidified America's Independence.
Within the next few weeks, the Continental Congress met once again to vote on the next steps for the new nation.
The Maryland Assembly elected him a delegate to the Continental Congress on Dec. 22, 1779. He took his seat in that body on June 14, 1780.
Another 1879 edition refers to the Continental Congress as the 'Old Congress' and Hanson as 'its president.'
On November 5, 1781, this convention - the primary governing body of the United States - elected John Hanson to a one-year term as their president.
That meeting and all other meetings of the Congress were held under the title of "The United States in Congress Assembled." Therefore, Hanson was president of the assembly, making executive decisions on behalf of the nation.
In an article for the New York Times, historian David Louis Lidman (1905-1982) said this of Hanson's presidency:
As president of the Confederation Congress, he had been accorded honors and roles as the head of government, although he had few of the powers of the President as defined by the Constitution of the United States, which went into effect in 1789.
Before we examine Hanson's title as a U.S. president, here are a few facts that are important for us to know about this man named John Hanson:
According to the first volume of the Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, published in 1979, Hanson had 11 slaves at the time of his death. They were 'mentioned in his will.'
U.S. Census records identify that by 1790, Hansons in his community claimed upwards of 160 slaves.
John Hanson's paternal ancestors descended from the Swedish royal family and Englishman Roger de Rastrick, who lived in 1251 during the time of King Henry III. Across all 19 generation of the family, spanning 600 years of history, there is no Moorish connection identified in the lineage of John Hanson as outlined by genealogist Kristin Carole Hall.
His mother's side of the family came from England.
The sign at Hyndburn Bridge, marking the boundary between Great Harwood and Clayton-le-Moors in Lancashire, Great Britain
Photo by David Dixon via Geograph
The only fact of the Hanson history that can be connected to the Moors is that Rastrick owned some land in a small town that is now known as Clayton-Le-Moors. This doesn't seem to be of particular significance as Clayton was one of several towns where he owned land.
A tourist guide to Clayton-le-Moors, by the Lancashire Telegraph, mentions that the old settlement once went by the name Clayton Super Moras, meaning "a stretch of barren land."
Citing the Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire, first published in 1821, Hall writes of the surname Hanson that the name was first given to a John Hanson in 1330 as an acknowledgement of his father (and Roger de Rastrick's great great grandson), Henry de Rastrich.
John was the first to be granted the name "Hanson", via an Act of Parliament in 1330. The name came from "Henry's son" to distinguish him from "John's son" and "Helen's son" (which became Ellison) and then to "Hanson."
You can view Hanson's pedigree for the United States going back three generations here.
You can also view a complete family tree Hall designed from her meticulous research here.
A book on the genealogy of the Hanson family by a member of the Hanson family is available here.
The legend of Hanson being the first president of the United States dates back almost 90 years to when journalist Seymour Wemyss Smith wrote the book John Hanson, Our First President in 1932. After him, Herbert J. Stoeckel wrote a book titled The Strange Story of John Hanson, First President of the United States in 1956.
In their books, these authors used portraits of Hanson that show him as a White man. Stoeckel's book contains both of the portraits above.
But up to the time these books were published, historians had already established Hanson's role in the formation of the new nation.
Around 1892, the banker and history enthusiast Douglas Hamilton Thomas (1847-1919) wrote John Hanson, President of the United States in Congress assembled, 1781-1782. In his title, Thomas recognized Hanson's office as it was known to Hanson himself.
Thomas includes in this book a letter Hanson wrote to John Hancock recognizing Hancock as 'President of the Congress' four years before Hanson's own election. Thomas further enclosed 'a certified copy' of a document which served as a formal recognition of Hanson's position, dated March 27, 1782.
If we needed more clarity on this subject, who would be a better authority to call on than George Washington himself?
In the heading of a letter congratulating Hanson on what Washington called his 'appointment to fill the most important seat in the United States,' George Washington, as commander-in-chief, acknowledged John Hanson as 'President of Congress.'
The Liberian John Hanson
There was another man named John Hanson, who was a Black man. This John Hanson was an ambassador to the United States' colony of Liberia by the same name. Thus, he was also a politician.
This Black John Hanson is often confused with the White John Hanson. However, he was not the same person. Furthermore, this John Hanson did not have the same political office as the White one.
The website of the U.S. National Portrait Gallery contains a biographical sketch of Senator Hanson among other distinguished Liberians, which reads as follows:
On August 11, 1827, John Hanson arrived in Monrovia aboard the brig Doris.
As mentioned before, his photograph is widely used in articles and memes claiming that the first president of the United States was a Black man.
Here is the original portrait, which can be found today at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Photographer: Augustus Washington
(Source: Library of Congress)
Danna Bell, a librarian and archivist who works as an Educational Resource Specialist at the Library of Congress, wrote an article in 2014 in which she attempted to shed some light on the popular conspiracy surrounding the image and career of John Hanson.
When people search the Library’s Web site, loc.gov, for an image of president John Hanson, they often find—and sometimes publish—this image from our daguerreotype collection.
Evidently, some people will still argue with the facts here after the truth has been exposed to them.
One person left a comment under her post four years later, which stated:
Because John Hanson was a Black man he wasn’t that president.
Okay random commenter.
It is quite easy to make the connection between the Black John Hanson and the Liberian Senate. The poses of other senators in similar daguerreotype portraits match their profiles on an official watercolor print of the Liberian Senate, created around the same time.
On the left side of the room, we see John Hanson between two other senators.
The artist may have had plans for this print to serve as the template for a more realistic painting like those of the U. S. Senate, which were popular at the time, but there is no evidence that such a work was ever completed.
drawn by Robert K. Griffin in Monrovia, Liberia
(Source: Library of Congress)
Back in March 2009, Audrey Peterson, editor of American Legacy magazine (which prides itself as "the premier magazine of African-American history and culture") wrote a blog post in which she, too, pointed out the obvious incompatibility of photography with 18th century America.
To that, she added:
No matter how African-Americans and their part in U.S. history have been ignored in the past (and this has been, and still is lamentably true in many cases), something as important as a Black man becoming the head of a fledgling United States would have made it into the history books.
*The italics were present in the original post.
Peterson believed that the story of the 'mythical Black first president' gained a larger and more receptive audience in 2008, following the election of U.S. President Barrack Obama. However, it had already been a feature in the fall of 2001, when she first felt the need to publish an article in response.
Earlier that year, Snopes' David Mikkelson also posted an article online arguing against the notion that an elected official could have served under a United States of America in 1781 when a single, centralized entity recognized by that name was not yet established.
The Articles of Confederation did not create a nation called “the United States of America.” They created, as stated in the first two articles, an alliance of thirteen independent and sovereign states who had agreed to “enter into a firm league of friendship with each other” while retaining their “sovereignty, freedom, and independence.”
The Snopes article does not mention John Hanson being a Black man as part of the conspiracy so we can reasonably assume that this rumor was mostly limited to Black history circles.
Behind The Memes
Some memes claim that a Black John Hanson is featured on the back of the U.S. two dollar bill and use the portrait of another Liberian senator, Edward Morris, to "prove" this.
On the back of the 2004 bill is an image of Thomas Jefferson's mansion. On the back of the 1976 bill is an image representing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to Congress.
This engraving was made by Asher Brown Durand, who based his work on a painting by John Trumbull, which is currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery. Trumbull created a larger version of his painting for the U.S. government and this painting now hangs in the central room under the dome of the U.S. capitol building.
Trumbull's first painting
(Source: Yale Art Gallery)
Trumbull's second painting
(Source: Architect of the Capitol)
(Source: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)
(Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Durand's engraving featured on the $2 bill
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
In all of the renderings above, there is not a Black man in sight.
None of these images show the White John Hanson, either.
But we CAN see a room full of White men - some whose faces are patially covered by shadows.
A U.S. government webpage about the painting contains an annotated guide, which identifies each person represented by name.
The name "Hanson" does NOT appear once on the list of 47 persons pictured in the scene. He is NOT identified as one of the missing nine, either.
This is because John Hanson was NOT one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was, however, a signer of the Articles of Confederation.
The Final Verdict
There has been no solid evidence presented, which can validate popular claims that John Hanson, who was elected as president of the Continental Congress was a Black man.
How embarrassing that it was "necessary" for a fact-checking website like PolitiFact (on behalf of Facebook) to deliberate on our understanding of history and to expose our widely held beliefs about this subject as "False."
I would argue that the first African American president, according to what Black people said they were, was neither Hanson, nor Jefferson; and not a soul between Lincoln or Obama, but the first president of the Black republic of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who served in this capacity from 1848 to 1856 and served a second term from 1872 until 1876.
I would further submit that the independence of Liberia and its early governance is of greater significance to the progress of Black people worldwide than the founding of the United States and the issue of whether or not any of its leaders had the faintest shadow of Blackness.
The history of Liberia is proof of our potential.
In Liberia, we see that even before the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans were living free. Not only were they free, but they were independent. In this, they were doing what a majority of American politicians (and the slave-holding Hansons) thought was utterly impossible - they were governing themselves.
Recognizing the importance of its work, President Thomas Jefferson pledged his support and President James Madison organized a fund so that this nation could stand for years to come.
Liberty is more than a physical experience.
Independence is more than a declaration.
The impulses of man can not be chained under the flag of any nation.
Our ancestors struggled for their freedom.
The master's bloodline was immaterial to their cause.
They freed their hands so we could work for ourselves.
They freed their feet so we could live for ourselves.
They freed their voices so we could speak for ourselves.
Now, let us free our minds so we can think for ourselves.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.