Ready to have everything you ever learned in school about the nation’s first president thrown out the window? It wasn’t George Washington. While George Washington was our first president under the Constitution, Samuel Huntington was president of the Continental Congress when the Articles of Confederation were ratified by all thirteen colonies, thereby officially forming the United States of America.
While the Articles of Confederations usually have a negative connotation in American history, it was Huntington’s steadfast commitment to the cause that helped the Continental Army through its darkest days and brought together the colonies as one nation to be victorious against the British.
Not much is known about Huntington’s early life, but a few things stand out and make him unique from most of the Founders. He was a self-educated man. As a barrel-maker’s apprentice, he borrowed books from local lawyers to study. At 23, he was admitted to the bar and began to practice law in Connecticut. In this way, Huntington fits the common myth of the Founders — that they were self-educated men. Reality was something different.
A large majority of the Founders, including 30 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, were college graduates, an enormous achievement for that period in history. If we count Huntington as our first president, he would be the least formally educated president from the generation of the Founders — even less than George Washington, who only held a diploma in land surveying.
Huntington’s experience with the law eventually led to his employment by the British Crown as a King’s attorney, a position similar to a modern attorney general. It was probably through his experience as a King’s attorney that Huntington developed his disdain for British politics and laws. The Coercive Acts (Intolerable Acts) led him to leave his position and begin a new political career as a member of the Second Continental Congress.
Few high-ranking Colonial officials sided with the Patriot cause. Huntington stands out because of his loyalty to the people of the colonies, not the institution of British law.
While George Washington found himself bored and idle during a large part of his presidency, Huntington found little time for idleness. While the president had little true executive power, he served as a figure head by meeting dignitaries, signing documents, and appealing to the states. It was the last duty where Huntington would make his mark. For most of the Revolutionary War things went poorly for the Continentals. Like any insurrection, they fought a war of attrition that was often paid by losing the battles in an effort to win the war.
The South had been captured, Washington’s army was underfunded and ill-equipped, French “help” was so-far bordering on nonexistent, and the value of Continental money was close to nothing.
Yet Huntington steadfastly used his position to rally support from the state legislatures, constantly appealing for more support in the form of troops, supplies, and finance. Most of his presidency was spent writing letters to state legislatures, and he was successful in keeping the Continental Army afloat.
At the same time, he fought the battle of trying to ratify the Articles of Confederation, and against all odds succeeded in having all thirteen state legislatures ratify the document.
Few modern presidents have been able to use statesmanship at a national level to call the states and public to action. Franklin Roosevelt employed the Fireside Chats, using the best technology of the day to advance his policies of the New Deal. John F. Kennedy called people to action with his famous statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you…,” which led to a new era of civic engagement.
But most recent presidents have not been able to overcome the partisan divide — to truly motivate the nation to a specific cause. And when they have, the effects have been disastrous and usually entail years of legal battles in the courts. Even overtures of bipartisanship like both President Obama’s SOTU and Joni Ernst’s response are seldom genuine, and are often loaded with stipulations of one side caving to the other’s demands. The unfortunate thing our modern politicians have forgotten: the democratic process almost always ensures that no one gets everything they want.
This is what we need to remember Samuel Huntington as — a statesman who was able to appeal to the people and advance the cause of freedom. The single greatest threat to our country isn’t a foreign enemy or terrorist plot; it’s the inability of our politicians to effectively govern and maintain our infrastructure, economy, and way of life.
America’s problems won’t be fixed by ideologies of liberalism or conservatism; they will be fixed by people willing to cross the divide and work together to identify the true causes of our problems and work for a beneficial solution.