"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Sunday, January 2, 2022

John Hanson


This 2011 statue of John Hanson by Antonio Tobias Mendez stands in courthouse square in Frederick Maryland atop the John Hanson National Memorial.  

Antonio Tobias Mendez 2011

Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1888, Vol. 3, page 75 give this biography of Hanson.
HANSON, John, delegate to congress, b. in Charles county, Md., in 1715; d. in Oxen. Hills, Prince George co., Md., 22 Nov., 1783. He received an English education, and was a member of the Maryland house of delegates nearly every year from 1757 till 1781. He removed to Frederick county in 1778, was an active patriot, and in 1775 was treasurer of the county. About that time he was commissioned by the Maryland convention to establish a gun-lock factory at Frederick. On 9 Oct., 1776, he was one of a committee to go to the camp of the Maryland troops in New Jersey, “with power to appoint officers and to encourage the re-enlistment of the Maryland militia.” He was a delegate to the Continental congress from 1781 till his death, served one year as its president, from 5 Nov. of that year, and in that capacity gave Washington the thanks of congress for the victory at Yorktown. After 1782 feeble health compelled him to retire from public life.

A plaque on the base of the monument says this.
First President of the First United States Government,
The United States in Congress Assembled,
Which Existed From 1781 until 1788.

“As the first elected president of our independent nation, President Hanson began the task of unifying the former colonies and Providing for their common defense, communication, and economic growth.” -- Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland in The Congressional Record, United States Congress, 2010.

and gives the following time-line:
April 14, 1715 ─ Born at Mulberry Grove, the Hanson family's ancestral estate in Charles County, Maryland.

1757 - 1782 ─ Served in the Maryland House of Delegates, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States in Congress Assembled.

About 1768 ─ Moved to Frederick , built his home on this property

1774 - 1779 ─ Head of Frederick County Government. A colonial and then national leader in financing the Revolutionary War, mustering troops and production of war materiel.

June, 1776 ─ Pivotal in persuading Maryland to sign the Declaration of Independence.

1779 - 1782 ─ Maryland delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Persuaded states with large midwestern land grants to cede these lands to the nation, overcoming the last obstacle to forming the first government.

March 1, 1781 ─ Final signer of the Articles of Confederation creating the first government.

November 6, 1781 ─ Elected first President, United States in Congress Assembled, under the ratified Articles of Confederation.

November 3, 1782 ─ Completed one-year term as President.

November 22, 1783 ─ Died at his nephew's Oxon Hill Manor home. Burial place unknown.

February 21, 1812 ─ Jane Contee Hanson, John Hanson's wife, died at their Frederick home.

January 31, 1903 ─ John Hanson Statue unveiled in National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol.

John Hanson's life has been consumed by myth. But, let's start at the beginning with Hanson's birth in Charles County in 1715 or was it 1723? Two historical markers point to  Mulberry Grove in Port Tobacco as the birthplace of John Hanson. This 1953 historical marker can be found along the Chapel  Point Road:

Mulberry Grove
Birthplace of
John Hanson

President of the United States
in Congress Assembled 1781-1782.

Died, Oxon Hill, Maryland
November 22, 1783

Erected 1953

Maryland State Highway Administration

 Turning up Mulberry Grove Place we find a 1963 marker, placed by the Maryland Society - Sons of the American Revolution.

The marker sits in front of the brick house at 8600 Mulberry Grove Place.

 When I visited in 2016, The house was for sale, with an asking price of $4,500,000.  The place was purchased in 2017 by real estate agent Jay Lilly and his wife Mary. (See The Grandeur of Mulberry Grove, by L. Beth Bonifant in Southern Maryland Living.)

 Although Shasho realty identified this as “Former home of John Hanson - First President of the United States and signer of the Articles of Confederation.”, this isn't John Hanson's house. That house burned down on July 25, 1934. The Architectural Style Survey form (CH-83) (1999/2012)  concludes that:
The present house on the property is an inaccurate reconstruction of the original residence at Mulberry Grove.
There  appears to be some doubt as to whether Hanson was even born in the previous house. The Architectural Survey form says that 
The original house on the property is believed to have been constructed by John Hanson, President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, on land purchased by him in 1744.

Nearby stands a rose granite obelisk placed on October 17,1959 by the Vasa Order of America, a Swedish American fraternal organization. (See Dr. Amandus Johnson's speech on the occasion.)  

The plaque on the front identifies this as a monument  to John Hanson.

John Hanson 
1715 - 1783
President of the United States
In Congress Assembled
1781 - 1782
Was Born at Mulberry Grove
April  14, 1715
Erected by the Vasa Order of America

Although this marker  does not explicitly claim that John Hanson was Swedish, it's placement by the Vasa Order indicates that they believed he was. The current consensus seems to be that Hanson was of British ancestry not Swedish. In a 2001 article entitled Was the First President of the United States a Swede? in The Swedish American Genealogist,  Vol. 21,  No. 2, Elizabeth Thorsell examines various claims and concludes:

So the story about the United States' first president, before George Washington, being of Swedish descent can now be relegated to the bottom of the myths.

The trivia point that John Hanson was the First President of the United States rests on an equivocation around the word “President.” John Hanson presided over Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the way the Vice-President presides over the Senate under the current constitution. He did not head the executive branch of government, in fact the confederation lacked an executive branch. Though we should note that Hanson's position was perhaps the highest office under the Confederation. George Washington called it “the most  important seat in the United States” in 1781. 

But perhaps the strangest myth accruing to John Hanson is that he, not Barack Obama, was the first African American President of the United States. An urban legend conflates John Hanson 1715-1782 with John Hanson who died in 1860 and concludes that the first president of the United States was an African American. (See for example an article entitled John Hanson--the first Black president? by 10 year old  Olayemi Odesanya in the Amsterdam News, 2/19/2009, Vol. 100 Issue 8, p11-34.) 

The fact that this Augustus Washington photo of John Hanson was taken between 1856 and 1858 should disabuse us of the notion that he was the First President of the United States in 1781. This Hanson was associated with the American Colonization Society. He emigrated to Liberia  and there became a Senator representing Grand Bassa County. 

Similar claims have arisen based on the dark skinned appearance of  Robert Morris on the reverse of the $2 bill. 

John Hanson retired from public life in 1782 after his term as President of  Congress in ill-health. He died on  November 15, 1783, at Oxon Hill Manor the home of his nephew, Thomas Hawkins Hanson, who had married into the Addison Family, owners of the Manor. 

Another Historical Marker in front of the John Hanson Montessori School on Oxon Hill Road tells the story.

John Hanson
President of the United States
In Congress Assembled, 1781-2
Died November 15, 1783, at
“Oxon Hill”
1 1/2 Miles West of Here.
The Original Mansion House, Built
By the Addison Family, Was Burned
February 6, 1895.
State Roads Commission

Oxon Hill Manor is now a County park but, as the marker indicates, this Grand 20th century Georgian house designed by Count Jules Henri de Sibour for Sumner Welles  is not where Hanson died.

 Hanson died in this version of the Oxon Hill Manor House, which the SAR monument below says was about 400 yards north of the current mansion.

Illustration from Oxon Hill Manor House One Hundred Years Ago or The Life and Times of Rev Walter Dulany Addison 1769-1848 by Elizabeth Hesselius Murray 1895.

By the front door of the modern mansion we find this monument erected by the MD Sons of the American Revolution.

On the front is a photographic image of a black and white reproduction of Charles Wilson Peale's portrait of John Hanson that hangs in Independence hall.

The SAR website refers to this image of John Hanson.

John Hanson from the Charles Willson Peale  portrait in Independence Hall, Philadelphia.

Which in-turn reproduces the Peale portrait in Independence Hall.

of the

Born 3 April, 1721,
Mullberry Grove,
Charles Co., MD.
Died 15 November
1783 at the original
Oxon Hill Manor
house (site about
400 yards north
of here) Prince
George's Co., MD.

John Hanson served
several terms as
a delegate to the
Lower House of
the Maryland
Assembly from
Charles County
between 1757 and
1769, and as a ...

member of the
Maryland House
of Delegates,
Frederick County
from 1778 to 1780.
In 1775 he served
as a member of
the Maryland
Convention which
issued its famous
declaration known
as the "Association
of the Freemen of
He was elected
the first President
of the United
States in Congress

Assembled under
the New Articles
of Confederation
and served from
November 5, 1781 -
November 4, 1782.
While President
he tendered
George Washington
the thanks of
Congress for the
victory at Yorktown.

June 30, 1990 by
the John Hanson
Chapter, Maryland
Society, Sons of
the American

The 1974 painting below by Cedric Egeli, is a particularly lively treatment of Peale's portrait of Hanson. It hangs in the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis.

John Hanson's body was presumed to have been buried in a vault on the Oxon Hill Manor property.

An NPS  survey entitled Oxon Hill Manor: Description, Evaluation and Recommendation
For Use as An Official Residence by the NPS Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation January 7, 1972 had this photo by Jack Boucher of “The John Hanson Mausoleum.”

Plate XV
Their description of the photo says:
Only two of the three 3 1/2' x 5' granite slabs that formed the floor of the "John Hanson Mausoleum" remain in situ.- Weather and recent vandalizing have destroyed evidence of the building's original design and use.
Peter H. Michael wrote in the Frederick News Post March 25, 2012, that:
In 1984, Oxon Hill Manor was purchased for development by Lewis Enterprises which in 1986 commissioned surveys that included the crypt where John Hanson had been interred. A 1985 State survey had found the crypt and its vault intact and sealed, but by 1987 the archeologist of the Lewis survey states, "About 70 to 80 feet below the site of the plantation house was a deteriorating brick vaulted structure built into the hillside" which the archeologist reported “was the 1783 burial place of John Hanson" and "had been robbed."

Sometime between 1985 and 1987, John Hanson had disappeared.

Then, so did the crypt and vault. A 1993 photograph shows them having mysteriously vanished, graded into a parking lot. From 1984 to1993, Lewis Enterprises owned the property. Later, Lewis's development project went broke and the property was sold to the Peterson Companies, developer of the immense National Harbor. Efforts to track down James Lewis, head of Lewis Enterprises, have proved futile. -- Vanished: Discovering Hanson’s Grave and Reilluminating Him Today

The historical tablet erected by National Harbor says this about the disposition of Hanson's remains:

When John Hanson died, he was laid to rest in the Addison family crypt, which was found intact but empty in 1971. The crypt was demolished in 1987. The whereabouts of John Hanson's remains are unknown, the fate of no other president. 

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