Presidents Before George Washington

Every school kid knows that George Washington was the first president of the United States, elected in April 1789, and left office after two terms in March 1797. But the Declaration of Independence was issued on July 4, 1776. If the United States declared itself a free country then, and Washington didn't become president until 23 years later, who was the president during that time? Were there presidents before George Washington?

The answer is a surprisingly complicated one. The First Continental Congress was declared in 1774, and the Second a year later. Both of those Congresses had an elected president, a merchant named Peyton Randolph. But as the Founding Fathers eschewed central government in favor of the individual legislatures of states, the position had no power. It was limited to a ceremonial role in running Congressional sessions, and would often sit empty. In 1781, after seven years, and six men holding the position, the first governmental document of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, was passed.

The new legislature, the Congress of the Confederation, continued to meet, and continued to elect presidents. Some historians consider the first Congressional President elected under the Articles, John Hanson, to be the real first president of the United States. But Hanson and his successors still occupied a largely ceremonial role, limited to signing correspondence and chairing meetings. At the same time as the weak government allowed by the Articles was floundering,  the Philadelphia Convention had convened, and wrote the Constitution that still governs the United States. The Congress of the Confederation met for the last time in March 1789, with one member in attendance. Two days later, the United States Congress met - and soon inaugurated George Washington as the first true president.

The presidents of the Continental Congress were indeed presidents of the central governing body of the nation. But it was a role with little power, one so ill-considered that delegates often refused it, and historians have compared it to the position of country club president. Unlike the current presidency, this was simply an honorific with no decision-making power.

Nevertheless, all of the men on this list played some role in the founding of the United States. Many signed either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. They risked their lives, first as traitors, then as soldiers. And they're all considered Founding Fathers - just not presidents of the United States.


  • Peyton Randolph
    Photo: John Wollaston the Younger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    A Virginia lawyer and landowner, Randolph was elected president of both the First and Second Continental Congress, in fall of 1774 and May 1775, respectively. He served for less than two months the first time, before resigning due to ill health, and the second time for two weeks, again due to ill health. He died a few months later, and didn't live to see the Declaration of Independence signed.
    • Age: Dec. at 54 (1721-1775)
    • Birthplace: Williamsburg, Virginia, USA
  • Henry Middleton
    Photo: Benjamin West / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    Middleton, a South Carolina plantation owner, served out the rest of Peyton Randolph's term as president of the First Continental Congress - a total of five days. The Congress adjourned in late October 1775, and Middleton returned to South Carolina. He was living in Charleston when the city was captured by the British in 1780, and Middleton accepted rule as a British subject.
    • Age: Dec. at 67 (1717-1784)
    • Birthplace: Charleston, South Carolina, USA
  • John Hancock
    Photo: John Singleton Copley / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    Likely the most well-known of the presidents of the Continental Congress, wealthy merchant (and sometime smuggler) John Hancock succeeded Henry Middleton as president of the Second Continental Congress. He held the post from May 24, 1775 until October 29, 1777. It was during his time as president that the Declaration of Independence was signed, famously featuring Hancock's ornate and flamboyant signature larger than all others. Hancock resigned as president due to conflicts with Samuel Adams, returned to Massacheusits, and was elected the state's first governor a few years later.
    • Age: Dec. at 56 (1737-1793)
    • Birthplace: Braintree, Massachusetts, United States of America
  • Henry Laurens
    Photo: Lemuel Francis Abbott / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    Two days after Hancock's resignation, South Carolina merchant and slave trader Henry Laurens was elected President of the Congress. He served from November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778, and the next year became the fledgling United States's ambassador to the Netherlands. While there, he was captured by the British, and traded back to the Continentals in exchange for disgraced British General Charles Cornwallis.
    • Age: Dec. at 68 (1724-1792)
    • Birthplace: Charleston, South Carolina, USA