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One argument which might be made against there being an oligarchy in respect of the Presidents of the United States is that the patterns of family relationship that we see with the early Presidents after Washington those who historians were later to call the “Virginian Dynasty”, is exactly what we should expect to find in a small country of limited population which drew its political class from a small landed elite.   And following on from that this is why we find Presidents related to each other.

 The argument certainly sounds fair enough on first blush but it can be challenged.  What I need of course is another set of Presidents other than those who follow Washington to check against.  I need to find a control group to test these assumptions on.

 Now this sounds bizarre- it is as if I were to imagine that there were alternative examples of chief executives or Presidents of the United States to draw upon!    After all this could only be true if Washington was indeed not the first President of the United States as is so often stated.

 However Washington was not actually the first President.  He wasn’t even second, or third, or seventh, he was eleventh and it makes perfect sense that he was.  The period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the election of the first President of the United States after the adoption of the Constitution in 1786 – that time of the First Republic of the United States, begs the question of who was looking after the shop in the intervening years.  The answer, unsurprisingly perhaps, was The Presidents of the United States of America. 

Whilst the States were declaring themselves as sovereign, the Continental Congress had to find a way to give itself the power to fight a war, raise funds and do all the things a nation needs to do and so in 1776-1777 Congress produced the Articles of Confederation.  This is a document written without much thought to theory but with lots of attention to detail and practicalities.  So after a decade of argument with the British about the location of sovereignty the Continental Congress produce a document which does not even attempt to settle it.  It was simply agreed that Congress should control the war and foreign policy, and the States control the rest such that “each state retained its sovereignty freedom and independence and every power jurisdiction and right which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to Congress”.  It was all done in a bit of a rush and finished on November 15, 1777 and afterwards ratification crawled along; Maryland not ratifying until 1781 when it was already clear that something stronger was going to be needed.

 Meantime a President was chosen by Congress to act in ways very similar to that of a Consul of Ancient Rome.  The title is of course similar to the modern idea of President but there were different responsibilities.  Perhaps initially these Presidents were closer to a sort of Speaker of the House of Representatives but as time moved on they began to take on roles and assume powers closer to that which we might nowadays associate with Presidents.  Each President in Congress Assembled held their post for about a year before standing down.  In order to distinguish this group of Presidents from their post Constitutional Second Republic successors, these ten are referred to as Presidents of the United States In Congress Assembled.  For this blog I do not need to get into a long diversion as to the differences with regard to the powers of this first tranche of Presidents as opposed to those of the post Constitutional Washington-et-al Presidents.  That is not important to this argument.  What I need to do now is to examine this group to see if they as Speakers, or Chief Executives, or Presidents have the same kind of inter relationships amongst themselves as are found with the later Presidents, and whether their descendants interconnect and reappear as future Presidents with the same regularity as I shall show with post Constitution holders of the office.  After all they are all drawn from the same pot.   This is because if the standard argument about the closeness of the early post Washingtonian Presidents such as suggested by Burkes in their “Presidential Families of the United States of America” edited by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd and published in London 1975 is correct then we should expect to see it reflected in this group too.  Indeed given the speed of growth of population in the United States it should actually be stronger and even truer of these early Presidents.  If not then I would know something rather special happened at the time the Constitution was drafted. 

Copyright David Macadam 2010