Perhaps nowhere else are the difficulties of getting to the truth of American history made more apparent than with the life of John Hanson, the third of our Presidents of the United States (In Congress Assembled). John Hanson was the President, who we are often told was of Swedish ancestry, and nearly always described as “a true patriot” whose great grandfather had died at Lutzen beside King Gustavus Aldophus of Sweden and whose grandfather was a founder of New Sweden on the Delaware River in Maryland.
Hanson’s biography is more vague and inaccurate than most, and there is no modern biography of him at all. One is forced back on a class of nineteenth century American historical biographies which might at the most charitable be considered “inspirational”. The core of these is a book published in 1876 on Maryland’s early settlers by one George A Hanson. George’s main thrust seemed to have been a desire to enhance the careers and backgrounds of his ancestors, and indeed anyone else he found called Hanson. Worse was to follow as all this nonsense was trotted out again in John Hanson, Our First President by Seymour Wemyss Smith in 1932.
The Swedish story seems to have arisen in 1872 and was actually about Anders Hansson in Delaware a totally different man and also with yet another Hanson entirely who was with Gustavus Adolphus, but neither, unfortunately were our President’s family. It would though be fair to easily get lost in the plethora of John Hansons in the area at that time. It took until George Ely Russel sorted out the mess in “John Hanson of Maryland: A Swedish Heritage Disproved” published in The American Genealogist 634 (Oct 1988).
But the stories get better and stranger than just a simple case of mistaken identity. One has Hanson as the first black President!. This is indeed odd because we do actually have portraits of him. Even allowing for the curious American tradition of the “one drop” rule its stretching credulity. This yarn seems to have been based on no better grounds than that when Hanson’s grandfather, who had emigrated from England, came over to America he was an indentured servant, and his contract was sold on to another master. This was seized upon by the biographer, who had little understanding of indentured apprentices, and who promptly mistook him for a slave which is just not the case at all.
There may have been some additional form of mistaken identity here as there was indeed a Senator John Hanson from Liberia who had been involved in resettlement of freed slaves but that was a different man and in a different century.
I think the best of all was the “fact” that he gave a famous speech at the signing of the Declaration of Independence which was said to give the crucial final motivating push for adoption. This load of old phooey was written up in “Washington and His Generals: or legends of the Revolution” by Lippard. Unfortunately for Lippard, Hanson was not even present at the meeting – very largely because he had never been invited. He was not chosen as a delegate until some years later.
To compound the bizarre nature of the story this speech has also been attributed to the Comte de Saint Germain who is believed by some spiritualists to be immortal, wandering the world to give guidance and inspiration at crucial moments. We have clearly drifted far from history. Mind you it didn’t stop Ronnie Reagan quoting the speech in 1957.
The supporters of Hanson hold that he should be considered as first President on account that it was his office defined much of what we believe to be the role of future Presidents[i]. He was clearly a capable unflappable man. His term began as the Revolutionary war finished and there were a host of immediate problems which required urgent attention. Troops needed paid and Congress had lost its nerve leaving Hanson to calm the situation and hold the Country together almost single handed. He ordered all foreign troops off American soil, established the first Treasury Department, The office of Secretary of War and a Foreign Affairs Department. His term was November 5, 1781 through November 3, 1782 and he served out a full term. He’s a little better remembered than the others in that he has a school named after him. It’s not much for a founding father is it?
As to the point why this blog is interested in him well he aint no oligarch either. Yes, he had a grandson Alexander Contee Hanson who was a newspaper editor and member of the Maryland House of Delegates, then US Representative, and finally a US Senator from Maryland from 1816-1819. And that’s about it. Well it is it. But it’s hardly the depth and level of connections one sees with Bush or Obama or Cheney or Kerry or Roosevelt. Or a dozen others.
Another chief executive, another major player in the revolution whose family are not represented in the ruling classes after the Constitution?. Are we seeing a pattern? Oh yes of course we are!. Now let’s find out about number four.
[i] Although largely unknown to the general public almost each of these Presidents (ICA) do have their own fan clubs, except for poor old Arthur St Clair whom no one seems to love.
Copyright David Macadam 2010