Summary of the Continental Presidents
There were three governing bodies of the 13 Original Colonies and states before the United States Constitution went into effect. The First Continental Congress, Second Continental Congress, and Confederation Congress all selected someone to preside over the proceedings. This person was usually been referred to as the President, and sometimes is mistakenly referred to as “President of the United States.” It is important to understand the role and authority of the position in the Continental Congress and the Confederation Congress, prior to the implementation of the United States Constitution, was not the same as it is today.
History of the Continental Presidents
The concept – and precedent – for an intercolonial congress was not new in 1774. There were at least two meetings that were attended by representatives from the Colonial Legislatures.
The first was the Albany Congress, which was held in 1754. It was called for by the British Board of Trade for the purpose of mending relations with the Six Nations. However, the meeting is most well known for the Albany Plan of Union, which proposed a loose union of the colonies to help defend the frontier. Seven colonies sent delegates, and Lieutenant Governor James De Lancey of New York presided over the Albany Congress.
The second intercolonial meeting was the Stamp Act Congress, which was held in 1765 for the purpose of creating a unified colonial response to the Stamp Act. The meeting produced a document called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and sent letters to the King and both houses of Parliament. Although the letters were rejected, the Stamp Act Congress marked the first time the colonies had called a meeting on their own in order to respond to British policies. Nine colonies sent delegates and Timothy Ruggles of Massachusetts presided over the meetings.
Presidents of The First Continental Congress
The First Congress met for the purpose of discussing a Colonial response to the Boston Port Act and the other Coercive Acts. Congress held its first meeting on September 5, 1774, and disbanded on October 26, 1774.
The Presidents of the First Continental Congres were:
- Peyton Randolph, Virginia
- Henry Middleton, South Carolina
The First Congress was not a complete representation of the 13 Original Colonies. Georgia did not send delegates.
Peyton Randolph of Virginia was the first President of Congress. He served from September 5, 1774, to October 22, 1774. He was nominated by Thomas Lynch of South Carolina.
President Randolph came from a wealthy family in Virginia. He studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. His cousin was Thomas Jefferson and he was close friends with George Washington.
Before he was elected to Congress, he led militia forces during the French and Indian War, served as the Attorney General of the colony, and was a member of the House of Burgesses.
Randolph was elected unanimously by the members of Congress to preside over the meetings. He resigned as President in October so he could return to Virginia to tend to his responsibilities as Speaker of the House of Burgesses.
Henry Middleton of South Carolina was the second President of Congress. He served from October 22, 1774, to October 26, 1774. Technically, he was still President when Congress disbanded, so he still held the position when Congress reconvened in May 1775. He was replaced by Peyton Randolph on May 10, 1775.
President Middleton came from a wealthy family. When his father died in 1737, he inherited property in South Carolina, Britain, and Barbados.
Before he was elected to Congress, he served in the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly and was a member of the Royal Council. He resigned from the Council in 1770 and joined the Patriot cause.
Presidents of The Second Continental Congress
The Second Congress met for the purpose of discussing a plan of action because Britain refused to repeal the Coercive Acts. Congress held its first meeting on May 10, 1775, and disbanded on March 2, 1781. By the time the Second Congress held its first meeting, the American Revolutionary War had started with the Battle of Lexington. The Siege of Boston was underway and it just so happened that Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys were able to successfully capture Fort Ticonderoga on May 10. Congress was immediately in charge of coordinating the war effort. Georgia sent delegates to this Congress, so it was, in fact, the first full governing body of the 13 Original Colonies, and, later, the United States of America.
The Presidents of the Second Continental Congress were:
- Peyton Randolph, Virginia
- John Hancock, Massachusetts
- Henry Laurens, South Carolina
- John Jay, New York
- Samuel Huntington, Connecticut
Peyton Randolph of Virginia was elected a second time and was the third President of Congress. He served from May 10, 1775, to May 24, 1775. President Randolph resigned from the position due to poor health but remained a member of Congress. Unfortunately, he died from a stroke on October 22, 1775, while having dinner in Philadelphia.
John Hancock of Massachusetts was the fourth President of Congress. He served from May 24, 1775, to October 31, 1777. His father died when he was young and he went to live with his uncle, Thomas, who was a wealthy merchant. President Hancock studied at Harvard and then went into business with his uncle. When his uncle died, he inherited the business and became one of the wealthiest merchants in the colonies. Before he was elected to Congress, he was a well-known Patriot and a member of the Sons of Liberty. He also served in the Massachusetts legislature. President Hancock has the distinction of overseeing the debate over independence and was the first member of Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence.
This portrait of John Hancock was painted by John Singleton Copley, circa 1765. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Henry Laurens of South Carolina served as the fifth President of Congress. He served from November 1, 1777, to December 9, 1778. President Laurens received a limited education and served for three years as a clerk in a countinghouse in London. He returned to Charleston in 1747, which led to a successful career as a merchant and made him one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. Before he was elected to Congress, he served in the militia and was a member of the Commons House of Assembly.
John Jay of New York served as the sixth President of Congress. He served from December 10, 1778, to September 27, 1779. President Jay received his education at King’s College and went on to a profession as a lawyer. During the first Continental Congress, he wrote the Address to the People of Great Britain, which explained the colonial grievances against Parliament.
Samuel Huntington of Connecticut served as the seventh Presiden of Congress. He served from September 28, 1779, to March 1, 1781. President Huntington was a lawyer and judge. Before he was elected to Congress, he was a member of the Sons of Liberty and the Connecticut General Assembly.
Presidents of the Confederation Congress
The Confederation Congress continued the Second Continental Congress but operated under the Articles of Confederation. The Confederation Congress held its first meeting on March 2, 1781. It disbanded on March 4, 1789, when the government under the United States Constitution went into effect.
The Presidents of the Confederation Congress were:
- Samuel Huntington, Connecticut
- Thomas McKean, Delaware
- John Hanson, Maryland
- Elias Boudinot, New Jersey
- Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania
- Richard Henry Lee, Virginia
- John Hancock, Massachusetts
- Nathanial Gorham, Massachusetts
- Arthur St. Clair, Pennsylvania
- Cyrus Griffin, Virginia
Samuel Huntington continued to serve and was the first President under the Articles of Confederation. He served from March 2, 1781, to July 6, 1781, when he retired.
Thomas McKean of Delaware served as the eighth President of Congress. He served from July 10, 1781, to October 23, 1781. During his term as President, Congress received the news of the British surrender at Yorktown.
President McKean received his education at home until he was nine years old and he was sent to the New London Academy to study. Afterward, he studied the law and became a lawyer. Before he was elected to Congress, he served in the militia, was a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress, and was a member of the Delaware General Assembly.
McKean holds the distinction of being the only person to serve in Congress from 1774 until peace was declared between the United States and Britain.
This portrait of Thomas McKean was painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1787. Image Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.
John Hanson of Maryland served as the ninth President of Congress. He served from November 5, 1781, to November 3, 1782.
President Hanson was the first person to serve a full term as President of the Confederation Congress. He came from a wealthy family and was a planter and politician who served in the Maryland General Assembly. Before he was elected to Congress, he helped determine the Maryland delegates to the Stamp Act Congress and protested the Coercive Acts by participating in the non-importation of British goods.
Hanson is sometimes referred to as the first President of the Confederation Congress. However, he is recognized as the third President by the Office of the Historian of the United States House of Representatives.
Elias Boudinot of New Jersey was the 10th President of Congress. He served from November 4, 1782, to November 3, 1783.
During his term, the British evacuated Charleston in January 1783, and the Treaty of Paris of 1783 was signed in September 1783, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War.
President Boudinot studied the law and became a lawyer. Before he was elected to Congress, he served on the Essex County Committee of Correspondence and convinced the New Jersey Provincial Congress to approve resolutions passed by the Continental Congress and Confederation Congress.
Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania served as the 11th President of Congress. He served from November 3, 1783, to November 30, 1784.
He was the son of a wealthy merchant and he studied at the College of Philadelphia.
Before he was elected to Congress, President Mifflin was a successful merchant and served in the Continental Congress. He served in the Continental Army but was involved in the Conway Cabal, a plot to replace George Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Mifflin eventually left the army due to criticism of his conduct.
Mifflin was President when Washington resigned from the army. On December 23, 1783, in a ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland, Washington handed his commission and resignation speech to Mifflin.
Richard Henry Lee
Richard Henry Lee of Virginia served as the 12th President of Congress. He served from November 30, 1784, to November 4, 1785.
Lee came from a prominent family and one of the largest landowning families in Virginia. He received his education from private tutors and completed his education in England. He returned to Virginia in 1751, he studied the law.
Before he was elected to Congress, he opposed British policies and served in the House of Burgesses. He served in the First and Second Continental Congress. In the Second Congress, he introduced the Lee Resolution, which called for independence.
This illustration of Richard Henry Lee is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
John Hancock served as the 13th President of Congress. His term lasted from November 23, 1785, to June 5, 1786. Hancock did not serve during this term because he was sick. Instead, David Ramsay of South Carolina was elected as Chairman and performed the duties of the office from November 23, 1785, to May 15, 1786. Ramsay resigned as Chairman and was replaced by Nathaniel Gorham. Gorham carried out the duties of President from May 15, 1786, to June 6, 1786.
Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts served as the 14th President of Congress. He served from June 6, 1786, to February 2, 1787. President Gorham was a descendant of Pilgrims and received his education from public schools. He worked as an apprentice and became a merchant. Before he was elected to Congress, he became active in politics. He served in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and on the Massachusetts Board of War.
Arthur St. Clair
Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania served as the 15th President of Congress. He served from February 2, 1787, to October 5, 1787.
President St. Clair was born in Scotland and came to America with British forces to fight in the French and Indian War. He served under General Jeffrey Amherst during the Capture of Louisbourg in July 1758 and under General James Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec in 1759. After the war, he settled in Pennsylvania.
Before he was elected to Congress, he served in the Pennsylvania Militia and the Continental Army. He fought the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton and was promoted to Major General. However, his ability came into question when he abandoned Fort Ticonderoga and allowed the British to recapture it. St. Clair resigned from the army in 1783.
Cyrus Griffin of Virginia served as the 16th and final President of Congress. He served from January 22, 1788, to March 2, 1789.
President Griffin was educated at the University of Edinburgh and studied law at the Temple School in London. He returned to Virginia during the American Revolution and supported the Patriots. Before he was elected to Congress, he served in the Virginia legislature.
Presidents Before George Washington?
There are many online resources that suggest there were anywhere between eight and 15 Presidents of the United States before George Washington. This is factually incorrect.
The President of the United States is an office that is part of the Federal Government, as defined in the United States Constitution. This is found in Article II, Section 1, where it is clearly stated, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”
The men who presided over the Continental Congress and Confederation Congress did not have the title of President of the United States. They were, in fact, the President of the Congress over which they presided.
Significance of the Continental Presidents
The men who presided over the continental governments are significant because they helped guide the colonies and states through the American Revolutionary War and the early days of the nation. Although the position had no significant power, the men who served were largely well-respected enough by their peers to be elected as President.