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Was There an African American President Before Barack Obama?

John Hanson, circa 1770
Question 

Someone that I know has been posting that Barack Obama is not the first African-American President, that indeed there was an African-American President before him, John Hanson.

I did my own research and found that John Hanson was the President of the Constitutional Congress, something quite different than the President of the United States (considering the United States wasn't even formed then). I also found that the John Hanson that was the President of the Constitutional Congress was not African, he was indeed Swedish.

I have found web sites that claim there is a cover-up about John Hanson and say that he was an African and that history has been changed to make him appear white. They have a photo of a man that they claim to be him. However, I don't believe these claims. I don't know who the man in the photos is, but I do know that there was a John Hanson who lived a hundred years after the John Hanson that I'm looking for, he was from Liberia and African—but NOT the president of the Constitutional Congress.

I am wondering if you can help clear the air in some way. The only reason I have a problem believing what they say, is because of the time period that they claim this happened in. There is no way that the people of that era would have voted for an African President of anything. I obviously don't agree with discrimination and racism, I just believe that given the circumstances of that time, the claims of John Hanson (president of the Continental Congress) are untrue. Will you please help me prove this to my friend, beyond doubt?

Answer 

John Hanson, who held the office that was known officially as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" from November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782, died in November 1783 long before the invention of photography. The African-American man in the photograph that you saw on a website could not have been this John Hanson.

The Meaning of Freeman

The possibility remains that the John Hanson in question had one or more African ancestors, either known or not known to his colleagues or even to himself. J. Bruce Kremer, one of Hanson's biographers, states that Hanson's grandfather and his three brothers emigrated in 1642 from Sweden to the recently formed New Sweden settlement on the Delaware River with newly appointed Governor Johan Printz. Kremer points out that one of the Hanson brothers, Andrew, had the same name as "Andrew Hanson, freeman, who once worked as a farmhand" for New Sweden landowner and military leader Lieutenant Måns Kling, the owner of a tobacco plantation on the Schuylkill.

Whether this Andrew was the same man as John Hanson's great-uncle, "must be a matter of conjecture," Kremer concludes.

One could conjecture, therefore, that John Hanson had an African ancestor as he may have been related to a man described as a freeman, that is, a freed black slave. Yet, the term freeman, in the context of the 17th-century New Sweden colony, did not indicate a freed black slave, as one might assume. According to Gregory B. Keen of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who has researched and written about the New Sweden colony, "The 'freemen' (frimännen)— so called because they had settled in the colony entirely of their own will, and might leave it at their option—held land granted them in fee, temporarily not taxed, which they cultivated for themselves, being aided also by the [Swedish West India] Company with occasional gifts of money, food, and raiment." Such "freemen" were distinguished from criminals forced to leave Sweden who had to work for a few years in New Sweden before they were classified as frimännen.

Those who believe that John Hanson was black might argue that his signing of the Proclamation of the Freemen of Maryland lends credence to the claim of African heritage. The Freemen of Maryland, however, was not an association of freed black slaves but of men advocating resistance to what they perceived as British tyranny in the period that led to the colonists' break with England. On July 26, 1775, the Freemen of Maryland resolved that the American colonies "be put into a state of defense" and approved armed resistance to British troops.

The Internet provides proponents of conspiracy theories with a way to reach a vast audience. Googling the phrase "John Hanson first black president" retrieves more than 350,000 hits. One website argues that because Hanson's signature is not to be found on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, and that a black man appears in the engraving on the back of the two-dollar bill of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, therefore a conspiracy to keep knowledge of Hanson's African-American identity from the public must have occurred. Yet Hanson was not a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1776, the year in which all but one of the signers signed the Declaration. Hanson died before the Constitution was created. Hanson, however, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention beginning in June 1780 did sign and ratify the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. In addition, while the skin color of one figure on the back of the two-dollar bill is ambiguous, the engraving was based on the painting in the U.S. Capitol by John Trumbull of the signing of the Declaration. In the painting, none of the figures have black or brown skin.

Historical Certainty

Historians cannot claim to prove "beyond doubt" that occurrences in the past did or did not happen. In a recent book on historical epistemology, Allan Megill acknowledges that historians cannot provide proofs of absolute certainty to support knowledge claims about the past. "Some persons of hypercritical bent demand that all knowledge be certain knowledge," he writes. "Following established philosophical tradition, they take all certain knowledge to fall into one of two categories. These are, on the one hand, the immediately certain knowledge of one's experience and, on the other, the logical certainty that is accorded to valid deductive reasoning. Neither of these forms of certainty is attainable to historical knowledge, however." Even a seemingly indisputable factual proposition such as "Napoleon Bonaparte existed," Megill argues, cannot be proven with absolute certainty since the past cannot be experienced in the present and Napoleon's past existence cannot be proven using logical deductive reasoning.

Rather than look for proof "beyond doubt" of beliefs about the past, historians instead should try to determine how well beliefs in question help, in Megill's words, "make sense of the totality of the historical record." In cases in which two or more accounts are credible, he advises that "the responsible historian will clearly indicate that the matter is not beyond dispute."

Historians then will examine evidence that supports rival claims and judge which is the best explanation on the basis of such evidence, an operation he terms "inference to the best explanation." In cases in which one account "is far better at accounting for the totality of the data than the alternatives," he insists that "the historian has every right to claim that such-and-such was the case."

With regard to John Hanson, historians thus have the right to claim that he was not black, with one caveat. As with all European Americans, Hanson may have had African ancestors in the far distant past if the arguments of scientists who claim that all humans have roots in African hominids are to be accepted, as opposed to the views of scientists who offer claims that humans developed independently in multiple regions.

Bibliography 

Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904–37), 19:213–14, 222; 23:582.

J. Bruce Kremer, John Hanson of Mulberry Grove (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1938), 60–61.

Gregory B. Keen, "New Sweden, or the Swedes on the Delaware," in Justin Winsor, ed., Narrative and Critical History of America (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1886), 4:460.

Hester Dorsey Richardson, Side-lights on Maryland History, with Sketches of Early Maryland Families (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1913), 371–73.

Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 128–29.

Want to learn more? I

Want to learn more? I encourage all to access the records in the U.S. Congress Biographical Directory. No, it will state his race however it does provide verification of his positions including elected President of the Continental Congress on November 5, 1781. Please access the proper link: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=h000177

Im a 7th Grade Girl in School

Im a 7th Grade Girl in School Right Now Trying To prove To my teacher That It Was A Black First President it And Sure Wasnt Obama

Appreciated!

Appreciated!

The picture in the library of

The picture in the library of congress for a Black man named John Hanson is NOT, I repeat, IS NOT the John Hanson that was president of the Articles of the Confederate. That John Hanson is nothing more than a Senator

Good job anonymous! I'm very

Good job anonymous! I'm very proud that you went out and you are weighing all the information you can get. I'm glad you are aware that people might not be telling the whole truth, even if they are telling some of the truth. Keep asking questions and do your best!

woww!!! very interesting

woww!!! very interesting info....i am a african american 8th grrade girl, who is still trying to figure out if john hanson is white or black! some websites is saying that he is white, others black. im not saying that the guy who made this article is right, but he broke it down a little bit more than others. lol

Seek and you shall find. The

Seek and you shall find. The truth is bitter but must be spoken and only the wise recognize it and can handle it. I am not a racist so don't be quick to judge me because you might be surprise to know my skin color.
Wow, it amazes me how educated people refuse to admit to the normal every day distortion and hiding of the truth by the " highly racist" ruling body at that time and even till today who will do every thing to oppress the minority, hide the truth from them and give "the white man" credit for every good thing. Thank God nowadays its very difficult to hide the truth of such nature. I do not doubt it if John Hanson's story has become so blurred because if only any of you who know how to do their research can research some fine works of blacks and other non-white people that has been taken over and credit given to the white men then you may understand some of the games going on until then can you fully understand what's going on behind the scenes. Personally, I think it would have been very difficult for a black man to be and if he was indeed a black then they would do everything possible to take it out of mind, site and history. Thus, the fact that there are scrums on the table suggests that someone must have eaten on that table.

Now this is what real

Now this is what real historians call RESEARCH! We take our profession (which is also our passion) very seriously! As an African American women, I would have loved for John Hanson to be a black man, but HE WAS NOT! My advice to people is before you go spreading untruths about historical events, people, or issues, is to research the topic through and through! DON'T MAKE ANY ASSUMPTIONS!!!!

I am black man who can

I am black man who can clearly determine that John Hanson was white! After fully researching the back ground of Hanson this is what I come up with.

John Hanson assumed the Presidency on November 3, 1781, the first man to be elected under the new Articles of Confederation. Hanson was elected by a unanimous vote and all potential candidates refused to run against him because of his work during the revolution and influence in Congress. He was a delegate from Maryland. His family was at the forefront of Maryland's struggle for freedom and equality long before the American Revolution. This does not mean he was black, but also gave the idea to President Lincoln for freedom and equality as well.

According to the scarce historical documents of this time, there is sufficient evidence to support the fact that there was neither statesman nor leader in whom Washington reposed more faith and confidence than he did in John Hanson. And for good reason, Hanson organized two companies of riflemen who were the first troops to come from the South to join General Washington's army in New England. Hanson's oldest son, Alexander Contee Hanson, was Washington's private secretary in the field. Alexander also served twice as an elector for Washington. Hanson's second son, Samuel, was a field surgeon for Washington. Samuel, the brother of John Hanson, presented 800 pounds sterling to General Washington to provide shoes for his soldiers at Valley Forge. In the later years you can view pitcher of his sons and daughter who are all clearly white.
Two American presidents also descended from the Hanson family, Henry William Harrison, the ninth President of the United States, and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States. Before becoming President, Hanson and his family were one of the most influential in Maryland. His forefathers came from Sweden with a link to the Swedish royal family. Hanson's great-grandfather, Colonel John Hanson, was a trusted officer of King Gustavus Adolphus. He was killed in the battle of Lutzen during the Thirty Years War while shielding the king. The Swedish king was also slain in that battle. Ten years later, Queen Christina sent the sons of Colonel Hanson to the new world to build a colony. Hanson's grandfather settled eventually in Maryland, an asylum in the New World for Catholics. The colony had friendly relationships with the Indians.

In 1649, the Assembly of Maryland approved a guarantee of perfect toleration to all religious sects. Maryland became a crystallizing center, almost from its beginning, for the growth of personal liberty and religious freedom. Samuel Hanson, father of John Hanson, was a member of the General Assembly of Maryland, considered a distinguished position in the colonists' eyes as equal to a Member of Parliament. He also served as the County Sheriff, Commissary, Clerk and a member of the board of visitors of the county school. "He was a man of profound learning and good judgment, experienced as a lawmaker, learned in the law and respected for his attitude toward law enforcement," Jacob A. Nelson stated in his 1939 publication John Hanson and the Inseparable Union. "He created an atmosphere that was becoming to a freeman and exerted an influence that promised rich returns. It was in such a home John Hanson was born and reared."

In 18th century colonial

In 18th century colonial America any free Black man with intelligence, money or capital could command respect. Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) the noted inventor and surveyor is one such example. Historians overlook Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) who served approximately 30 years as Pastor for a Caucasian Congregational parish in Vermont beginning in 1788.
However, the figure on the reverse of the two dollar bill is not a Black man and certainly not John Hanson. Hanson was not present at that classic meeting of the signing of the Declaration. The figure in question is actually Robert Morris, one of the great financers of the revolution. The image is certainly compatible with other portraits of Morris. What many mistake for a Black man is merely the heavy handed etching of an engraver's tool - however intentionally or accidentally.
There are no photographs of John Hanson, President of the United States in Congress Assembled. An original portrait (painting) of Hanson prior to his position as President exists in Baltimore's Museum of Art
One can easily discern some level of miscegenation took place with his ancestry and that based on his full features and not his color.
-F. Govan

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