Will it be Barak Obama, come the wee hours of November 4 and on a January morning in 2009? Or was it Bill Clinton, our forty-second President, so-called because of his policies favorable to and inclusive of African-Americans (as well as women and other minorities)?
Or was it John Hanson, from 1781 – 1782, before George Washington?
A patron posed a fascinating question to us the other morning: Was there, for one day, a black President of the United States? He said that his grandmother had read the claim in a textbook during her college years, and he wanted to verify it for himself. We performed a web search that yielded this information:
Comedian Dick Gregory writes in his Global Watch column that a John Hanson served as president from November 5, 1781 – November 3, 1782, predating the presidency of George Washington by seven years. The article’s header states that Hanson was “A ‘Black’ Man, A Moor,” though it gives no evidence to Hanson’s color or origin. Other web search results point back to Gregory’s article, and no other verifying sources were immediately found. Then a search under Hanson’s name revealed that neither claim may be true.
John Hanson was indeed a President of the U.S., but under the Articles of Confederation, which pre-dates our Constitution and the Executive Office as we know it. Also, he was the second president to serve under the Articles, though he was the first to serve a full one year term. Even in the whole scheme of things, he was the third president to preside over the Continental Congress of the U.S, and that was never an executive post with the powers and responsibilities of the office now.
Though little is written about him from his time, nothing in the writings suggest that Hanson was black. Portraits of the period show him as a white man. A Wikipedia article on Hanson – that addresses myths about him and his term of service – states that the belief of his race is rooted in the fact that his grandfather was an indentured servant. There is possibly confusion between indentured servitude and chattel slavery: indentured servants were black or white, and worked for a number of years to earn their freedom; chattel slaves were always black, and had no option of freedom outside of escape. The article also states that Hanson may be confused with another John Hanson, a Liberian Senator during the 1850’s (pictured above with Obama and Clinton).
Assisting the gentleman with his query is one of the things I enjoy about reference work: Searching and discovering information that helps our patrons as well as edifies me. I had heard that there were other presidents before George Washington, but know now of the nature of their presidency; and that maybe, one may have been of African decent, though not likely.
The experience also underlines the importance of thorough research and backing information with verifiable and reputable sources, whether it’s a controversial claim like Gregory’s, or an average grade school report. The information that is transmitted impacts the knowledge of the hearer, as well as the reputation of the writer.
I have referenced two Wikipedia articles in this essay. Because its articles are written by people whose expertise in an article’s subject is questionable, many librarians — myself included — are wary of using Wikipedia as a sole source of information, and recommend using other resources to verify its information. The reader may want to research further the information in the Wikipedia articles, as well as Gregory’s article.