Third President of the United States
in Congress Assembled
November 1781 to November 1782
John Hanson was born in Charles County, Maryland in 1715 and died in Oxen Hills, Prince George County, Maryland on November 22, 1783. There is much debate about John Hanson’s ancestry with one camp claiming he was descended from Swedish Royalty while the other group claiming he was a Moor. Neither of the assertions have merit.
John Hanson received an English education, and was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates nearly every year from 1757 until 1781. He moved to Frederick County in 1773 and was an energetic patriot, who in 1775 became treasurer of the county. About that time he was commissioned by the Maryland convention to establish a gun-lock factory at Frederick.
On October 9th, 1776 he was part of a committee empowered to call on the Maryland Troops in New Jersey, “with power to appoint officers and to encourage the re-enlistment of the Maryland militia” as General Washington’s military losses in New York and New Jersey were substantial and desertion was rampant.
John Hanson was elected a delegate to the United States in Congress Assembled in 1780 and served until his death in 1783. On September 11th the Freshman Delegate wrote this letter to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Signer of the Declaration of Independence:
“I have been Confined to my Room a fortnight, and was so unwell When the last post set out, that I was not able to Write, I am now on the recovery, and hope to be able to attend Congress in a day or two. I inclosed you Some time ago a Curious Historical Annecdote, delivered in may last, by sir John Dalrymple, to the Court of Spain. As you have Said nothing about it, am afraid it has not Come to hand.
Congress received a letter by Express from General Gates dated Hillsborough August 20th giving an Account (tho’ a very Confused one) of His unfortunate Defeat near Camden, on the 16th. He says he marched about 10 oClock in the night of the 15th, to possess himself of an advantageous piece of Ground about Seven miles from Camden. About 2 oClock in the Morning His light Horse was attacked by those of the Enemies but were repulsed. Upon this he halted the Army, and nothing more happened till about break of Day, When he was attacked by the Whole furie of the Enemy. His Army was drawn up with the Virginia Militia on the left, the North Carolina militia in the Center and General Gist on the right-General Smallwood was in the rear, as a Corps De’reserve. The Militia to a man fled the first fire, and left our brave regulars to Sustain the Whole force of the Enemy. General Gates went of[f] with the Militia, endeavoring to rally them, but to no purpose, and while he was thus engaged. He Says the firing between the two Armies Ceased, by which he Concluded all was over, and therefore made the best of his Way to Hillsborough Where he arrived the 19th performing a Journey of 196 miles in less than four days. He Knows nothing of What became of the Regulars, but says he should immediately Send off a flag to gain the necessary information.
Saturday last an Express Arrived from Governor Nash dated the 26th Advising that Generals Smallwood, And Gist, had bravely Cut their Way thro’ the Enemy With about 400 men-that the Militia were again Collecting, that they had got together between two and three thousand, regulars included. This day another letter has been received from General Gates with a list of the Officers that are Safe to Wit Generals Smallwood and Gist, Colonels Williams, Gunby and about 700 privates. The list also Contains the Names of those officers that are missing, but I have not Seen it, neither Can I procure a Copy to Send you by this Opportunity. Baron de Calmb is Dead of His wounds. Our loss on the Whole about 500 and that of the Enemy as many. We have also lost all our Baggage Waggons and Eight pieces of Cannon.
Our main Army is in the greatest distress for want of provisions Were Without meat from the 21st to the 26th and Some have not had one day With another not one third allowance. The general moved into the neighborhood of Fort Lee with a View of Stripping that part of the Country of the remainder of its Cattle Which after a most rigorous exertion afforded only two or three days supply and this Consisting of milch Cows and Calves of one or two years old. This manner of procuring is very distressing and attended With ruin to the morals and discipline of the Army, during the five days. Which small parties were Sent out to procure provisions for themselves, the most enormous excesses were Committed. It has been no inconsiderable Support to our Cause to have had it in our power to Contrast the Conduct of our Army With that of the Enemy, and to convince the Inhabitants, that While their rights were Wantonly Violated by the British Troops, by ours they were respected. This distinction must now unhappily Cease, and we must assume the Odious Character of the plunderers instead of the protectors of the people, the direct Consequence of Which must be to Alienate their minds from the Army, and insensibly from the Cause-in short, if this method of procuring provisions for the Army is not very speedily prevented, by an exertion of the States in Sending forward Supplies the Army must disband, and we are undone. It is reported and Credited by many that a french fleet of 18 Ships of the line and some frigates are on the Coast. They were Seen it is Said Some days ago to the Northward of our Capes. Our new raised Battalion is ordered by the general to the Southward. My Compliments to the family And Am with the most Sincere respect, Dr. sir, your most hble Servt,
Delegate Hanson had indeed come to Congress in one of the the most challenging periods of the revolution. The southern ports of Savannah and Charleston were controlled by the British, Arnold had defected, General Gates the hero of Saratoga was routed in Camden and Washington’s troops were in mutiny. Times were dark indeed but in one year, with Victory at Yorktown and Independence all but won, Delegate Hanson would become the 3rd President of the United States of a Confederation government that presented a more daunting challenge, self-government under a defective U.S. Constitution.
One year before his Presidency, Delegate Hanson believed that “The great neutral powers of Europe seem to regard the present War, as an event favorable to the augmentation of their Commerce”. In a December 11th letter Hanson requested Charles Carroll of Carrollton join him in the Continental Congress to address this and other political challenges. Hanson writes:
“Your favour by the last post, I am much obliged to you for. I am very Sorry to be informed, that the principal object of the meeting of the General Assembly has not yet been taken into Consideration, I mean that of procuring Men and Supplies for the Army; yet from the good Opinion I entertain of the present leading Members of each House, I flatter my self every thing of importance Will be Attended to, before you rise. The Trustees having protested our Bills Will be favourable to the Veiws of those Who are for Confiscation.
Immediately on the receipt of your letter, Which was late this afternoon, I went to Mr. Morris’s to make the enquiry you desired me, but Mr. Morris was too ill to be Spoke With, Which prevents my giving you the information you Want, at present.
Advices from Spain and France of the 25th September, and 15th October say, that General Clinton had requested to be recalled, unless a reinforcement of 10,000 men, was immediately Sent him-that a vessel had Sailed from England, With dispatches Containing assurances, that the King entirely Approved of His Conduct-that he Should be Aided With all the Supplies in their power, And that orders were given for raising Nine regiments of foot, And one of Horse, to be Sent out Early in the spring. That nine Sail of the line and a number of Transports, With 4000 Troops, would Sail from Brest in a day or two, destined to reinforce Admiral Ternay. The King of Spain is much pleased With the Resolution of Congress, permitting the Exportation of flour for the use of His fleets and Armies, in the West Indies, and desired that his thanks might be Conveyed to Congress, for Such a proof of their friendly disposition, And the Minister gave the strongest Assurances, that his majesty Would never Consent to a pacification With England which did not include the Interest of America.
Measures for Sending Commissioners from G B to treat with Congress, is under Consideration of the Privy Council, And it is thought would be adopted. Mr. Cumbaland Still remains at Madrid-the Abbe Hussey, his Coadjutor has received A Passport to go to Lisbon, and from thence to London, And return With the Ultimatum of that Court. (Is it not Something Mysterious that a Secretary to Lord George Germain one of the King of G B Ministers Should be permitted to reside at the Court of His most Christian Majesty in time of war?). England hath not yet Completed her last years Loan. All the powers will find it difficult to procure money to Carry on the War. France hath already begun to Tax, and it is probable must Continue to do so. The great Neutral powers of Europe Seem to regard the present War, as an Event favorable to the Augmentation of their Commerce, and Will probably do so until one or other of the Contending parties, appear to have a decided Superiority. Portugal it is Said Seems better disposed to the Allies than heretofore.
The Combined fleet at Cadiz, Consists of 45 Sail of the line besides frigates &c-the Count DEstaing Commands the French part of the Fleet, and the Whole was ready to put to Sea. Mr.Laurence was taken on his passage to Holland and Conveyed to London, And is Committed to the Tower on a Charge of High Treason.
The Main Army is gone into Winter Quarters. My Compliments to Mr Carroll and the Ladies, And Am with the greatest regard Dr sir Your most hble Servt,
[P.S.] It would give me great pleasure to see you here.”
Hanson’s position as Maryland’s Delegate was tenuous at best to the Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation were enacted by the Congress in November of 1777. They were ratified July 9, 1778, by ten states; by New Jersey on the 26th of November of the same year; and by Delaware, on the 23d of February 1779. It was Maryland, the state Delegate Hanson represented, who for two more years was the lone holdout in ratifying process. A ratification that would create the “Perpetual Union” and provide the States with a constitution and federal government direly needed to obtain foreign aid and diplomatic acceptance. It was widely believed that France’s and other European powers would not fully commit to the cause of independence until the Articles were ratified. Hanson’s State was the only roadblock to establishing the “Perpetual Union.”
Delegate Hanson understood this and was instrumental in persuading the Maryland Legislature to ratify the Articles of Confederation, The new Congress of November 1781 rewarded Hanson for this service by electing him President on November 5, 1781. The Journals report::
“The following members attended from the State of New Hampshire, Mr. [Samuel] Livermore,Massachusetts, Mr. [James] Lovell, [George] Partridge, [Samuel] Osgood,Rhode Island, Mr. [Daniel] Mowry, [James Mitchell] Varnum, Connecticut, Mr. [Richard] Law, New Jersey, Mr. [Abraham] Clark, [Elias] Boudinot, Pennsylvania, Mr. [Joseph] Montgomery, [Samuel John] Atlee, T[homas] Smith, Maryland, Mr. [John] Hanson, [Daniel of St. Thomas] Jenifer, [Daniel] Carroll, Virginia, Mr. [James] Madison, [Edmund] Randolph, Jo[seph] Jones, North Carolina, Mr. [Benjamin] Hawkins, South Carolina, Mr. [Arthur] Middletown, [John] Mathews, [Thomas] Bee, [Nicholas] Eveleigh, [Isaac] Motte, Georgia, Mr. [Edward] Telfair, N[oble] W[imberly] Jones.
Their credentials being read, Congress proceeded to the election of a President; and the ballots being taken, the honble. John Hanson was elected. “
The above book has created great confusion making the founding U.S. History even more perplexing. This is one of many historians who recognize the U.S. Presidency under the 1st U.S. Constitution but incorrectly maintain that John Hanson was the first President of the United States. This error is pervasive in some of our most venerable educational institutions including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian Exhibit on the U.S. Presidency incorrectly starting the lineage with John Hanson labeling him as the 1st President of the Continental Congress. In the background is the author’s exhibit including a 18th Century printing of the Journals Of The United States in Congress Assembled proving John Hanson was the 3rd President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.
During the above exhibit unveiling on January 29th, 2004 our office received a rather frantic call from David Halaas, the Chief Historian of the Heinz History Center which is a branch of the Smithsonian Institute in Pittsburgh. Our family had just consigned several presidential letters of John Hancock, Thomas McKean, Thomas Mifflin, Elias Boudinot and Arthur St. Clair as well as the first public printing of the U.S. Constitution to the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit “A Glorious Burden, The American Presidency,”. The exhibit was due to open two days later and the section on the Continental Congress or the early presidency had just arrived at the museum. The Smithsonian had no account of the United States in Congress Assembled and surprisingly had John Hanson prominently displayed as the first President of the Continental Congress. The Smithsonian’s historians were incorrect on both accounts.
After a brief discussion on historical accuracy, Dr. Halaas said, ” Are you sure Hanson was not the first President as either you are mistaken or this Smithsonian Exhibit (which had already has been half way around the Country) is incorrect?” I assured him the record was irrefutable reading from the original Journal of the United States in Congress Assembled. Dr. Halaas responded, “I thought you were correct but needed to hear it again before I contacted the Smithsonian.”
To bolster my case I showed up the following evening with the 1781 Journal of the Continental Congress and Journal of the United States in Congress Assembled all in the same 18th Century printing which was added to the exhibit. Dr. Halaas agreed to notify the Smithsonian on the 31st requesting the “Hanson” sign and verbiage be corrected. The Smithsonian never responded and to this day they incorrectly maintain John Hanson was the 1st President of the Continental Congress when he never even served in that pre-Articles of Confederation government.
Forgotten Founders vs. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson
President Hanson served one year as U.S. President under the Articles of Confederation, beginning November 5th of that year, and in that capacity gave General Washington the official Thanks of Congress for the victory at Yorktown. Hanson also took the time to write an official Thanks of Congress to Thomas McKean for his services as President of the United States of America in Congress Assembled. This letter, which can be found below, is irrefutable proof that even John Hanson recognized at least one President of the United States in Congress Assembled before he assumed the unicameral chair.
John Hanson’s letter to former President Thomas McKean reads:
“It is always a pleasing task to pay a just tribute to distinguished Merit. Under this impression give me leave to assure you, that it is with inexpressible satisfaction that I present you the thanks of the United States in Congress assembled, in testimony of their approbation of your conduct in the Chair and in the execution of public business; a duty I am directed to perform by their Act of the 7th instant, a copy of which I have the honor of enclosing.
When I reflect upon the great abilities, the exemplary patience and unequalled skill and punctuality, which you so eminently displayed in executing the important duties of a President, it must unavoidably be productive of great apprehensions in the one who has the honor of being your Successor. But the Choice of Congress obliges me for a moment to be silent on the subject of my own inability: And altho’ I cannot equal the bright example that is recently set me, yet it shall be my unremitting study to imitate it as far as possible; and in doing this the reflection is pleasing that I shall invariably pursue the sacred path of Virtue, which alone ought to preserve me free from censure.
I have the honor to be, with the highest sentiments of respect and esteem, Sir, your most obedient And most humble Servant,
John Hanson Presidt.”
John Hanson Letter as the 3rd President of the United States in Congress Assembled congratulating Thomas McKean for his service is irrefutable proof that he was not the 1st president of the United States or the 1st President of Continental Congress as maintained by the Smithsonian Institute in their Presidential Exhibit – Courtesy of the Author
When I discovered this Hanson letter in the archives of the Library of Congress, like a little child, I rushed to the librarian in the special collections room and stated that “I found irrefutable proof in his own hand that the John Hanson knew he was not the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” The librarian looked-up at me like I was nuts and said “Of course he isn’t, he was the first President of the Continental Congress.” I shook my head and smiled assuming the learned man believed the United States in Congress Assembled was the joint body of the current U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Since the House and Senate’s formation in 1789 both have jointly referred to themselves as the United States in Congress Assembled. Perhaps, I thought, that someday this Congressional Librarian would read “President Who? Forgotten Founders” and catch this very brief account of my discovery.
The nation under the Articles, in 1781, had no Supreme Court or Executive branch. It was entirely a unicameral body, an entirely different entity from the Continental Congress or the two current U.S. legislative bodies. Unfortunately Paul Smith, the Library of Congress scholar who compiled the “Letters of the Delegates” was retired so I celebrated the “find” by re-reading his scholarly notes on Hanson:
“It is also appropriate to note at this first of the John Hanson presidential letters a significant change in the character of the presidential correspondence. The change had actually begun with the professionalization of the boards of war and admiralty and the appointment of full-time commissioners to those offices in 1779 and 1780, but the implications of this shift were not fully realized until the creation of the executive departments in 1781, when principal responsibility for financial, foreign and military affairs became the concern of the superintendent of finance, the secretary for foreign affairs, and the secretary at war.
Reviewed statistically, the volume of presidential correspondence had crested at slightly over 50 letters per month during the presidency of Henry Laurens, remained relatively constant at about 40 letters per month during the terms of his successors John Jay and Samuel Huntington, and dropped off to about 30 letters per month with President Thomas McKean. But Hanson apparently chafed at even this modest level of presidential responsibility, and on January 28, 1782, secured adoption of a congressional resolution transferring to Secretary Charles Thomson primary responsibility for communicating Continental policy:
‘In order that the President may be relieved from the business with which he is unnecessarily incumbered.’
Accordingly, the flow of presidential letters immediately slowed to a trickle. Hanson wrote about three dozen presidential letters during his first three months as president, but only 18 survive from his last nine months in office, distributed as follows: February1, March-6, April-0, May-1, June-3, July-2, August-2, September-I, and October-2. The flow of the presidential correspondence was of course always conditioned by external events, but Hanson’s personal responsibility for the dramatic change that took place in 1782 seems clear from the fact that his successor Elias Boudinot wrote over 140 presidential letters the following congressional year, and in 1783 – 84 President Thomas Mifflin wrote at least 60 during the six months of his presidency that Congress was actually in session.”
On the same day the new President wrote Thomas McKean the congratulatory letter he transmitted this letter to George Washington on November the 28th:
“Sir, Philadelphia, NOV. 10th. 1781 I have the honor of transmitting to your Excellency a copy of an Act of Congress of the 7th instant, for your information and satisfaction. Your Excellency’s letters of the 27th and 31st ult. have been received and laid before Congress.
As this is the first opportunity I have had of writing to your Excellency since Congress were pleased to elect me to the singular honor of being their President, and as a literary correspondence, from our mutual situations, becomes indispensably necessary between us, give me leave to assure you, Sir, that it will not only be a pleasure of a superior nature, but invariably my study, to render that correspondence as advantageous and agreeable as possible. Any intelligence worth communicating, which first reaches me, shall be related with unreserved freedom, candor & punctuality- And permit me to hope for a similar treatment from your Excellency. Already my knowledge of your Character leads me to anticipate infinite satisfaction.
I cannot avoid mentioning that the present Aspect of our Public Affairs is particularly pleasing: And so much do we seem extricated from our perplexing difficulties, and such, I hope, is the power and force of recent Experience, that we shall not relapse into our former state of imbecility and distress. The events of the present Campaign will, no doubt, fill the most brilliant pages in the history of America. May Heaven still continue to smile on our efforts!
With the highest sentiments of respect & esteem, believe me to be, Sir, Your
Excellency’s Most obedient & very humble Servt.
John Hanson Presdt.”
Thanks to Washington’s Victory at Yorktown and the rise of the Executive Departments under former U.S. Presidents Huntington and McKean, Hanson’s Presidential burdens were much more manageable than those he served under as delegate in 1780 and 1781. John Hanson’s Presidency, despite being the first to serve over a group of Delegates entirely elected under the new Articles of Confederation, also suffered from cavalier attendance under the new Confederation Constitution. Hanson wrote the States shortly after his election:
“Sir, Philadelphia, Nov. 15th. 1781. Congress feel themselves reduced to the disagreeable necessity of directing me to write to your Excellency respecting the deficiency of a Representation from your State. For a considerable time past only seven States have been represented, and those merely by the essential number of Delegates. From this information you will readily conceive, without a minute and painful detail, the numerous inconveniencies and real dangers they are subjected to, abstracted from every consideration of interest, honor and reputation.
The most important powers vested in Congress by the Confederation lie dormant at this time by reason of the impunctuality of the Delegates of six States in point of attendance, and some of those powers too indispensably necessary to be exercised at this great and important Crisis. Permit me, Sir, to flatter myself that it is superfluous to urge any thing more upon this delicate but momentous subject, and to hope that your Excellency’s influence will be exerted to prevail upon your State to send forward and keep up a full Representation in future.”
It was only two days later with support of 21 delegates against 2 that Edmund Randolph’s motion to take a national census failed due to quorum requirements not being met. Two delegations were divided and five states were unrepresented on November 17th so only Six States voted YES on the census resolution. The Confederation government, despite the Victory at Yorktown and newly elected Articles’ representatives, was off to an all too familiar shaky start in its efforts to govern the United States of America.
John Hanson and the United States in Congress Assembled did not forget the superb efforts of General Lafayette defending Virginia against Cornwallis while George Washington was preparing to attack General Clinton in New York. John Hanson wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette on November 24th, 1781:
“It is with infinite pleasure and satisfaction, that I transmit to you the inclosed copy of an Act of Congress of the 23d instant. Believe me, Sir, that Congress being sensible of your great ability, integrity and fortitude, and your distinguished and zealous attachment to the cause of America, have, with the greatest chearfulness, bestowed upon you the new and great marks of confidence & esteem contained in that Act-And certain I am they could not have bestowed them more worthily or with greater propriety.
I shall at this time only beg leave to assure you, that it is my most sincere & ardent prayer, that you may have a safe & prosperous voyage to your native Country; that you may receive a gracious and welcome reception from the greatest and best of Kings; and that you may arrive to an happy and pleasing interview with your Family; And permit me to indulge the Hope of your speedy return to America.
With the highest sentiments of respect & esteem, I have the honor to be &c. J. H.”
John Hanson’s Congress granted Lafayette leave to return to France commending him in a formal resolution for his conduct during his command in Virginia. They also directed the Secretary for Foreign Affairs to prepare a letter for the King of France of thanks to be carried by Lafayette on his return home.
1781’s business concluded on Monday, December 31 with the passage of Robert Morris’s very important plan for the Bank of North America with the following ordinance:
“An Ordinance to Incorporate The Subscribers to The Bank Of North America.
Whereas a National Bank, properly constituted, governed and Conducted, will be of great advantage to these United States; and whereas a Subscription for a National Bank has been opened, and the Subscribers deserve the Protection, encouragement and assistance of the public: And whereas it is proper and necessary that the Subscribers to this Bank should be incorporated in order to carry into full effect the good ends proposed by it. Whereas Congress on the 26th day of May last did, from a conviction of the support which the finances of the United States would receive from the establishment1 of a national bank, approve a plan for such an institution submitted to their consideration by Robert Morris, esq. and now lodged among the archives of Congress, and did engage to promote the same by the most effectual means; and whereas, the subscription thereto is now filled from an expectation of a charter of incorporation from Congress, the directors and president are chosen, and application hath been made to congress by the said president and directors for an act of incorporation: and whereas, the exigencies of the United States render it indispensably necessary that such an act be immediately passed:
Be it therefore ordained, and it is hereby ordained, by the United States in Congress assembled, that those who are, and those who shall become subscribers to the said bank be, and forever after shall be, a corporation and body politic to all intents and purposes, by the name and stile of ‘The President, Directors and Company of the Bank of North America.’
And be it further ordained, that the said corporation are hereby declared and made able and capable in law, to have, purchase, receive, possess, enjoy, and retain lands, rents, tenements, hereditaments, goods, chattels and effects, of what kind, nature or quality soever, to the amount of thirty ten millions of Spanish silver milled dollars and no more; and also to sell, grant, demise, alien, or dispose of the same lands, rents, tenements, hereditaments, goods, chattels and effects.
And be it further ordained, that the said corporation be, and shall be forever hereafter, able and capable in law, to sue and be sued, plead and be impleaded, answer and be answered unto, defend, and be defended, in courts of record or any other place whatsoever; and to do and execute all and singular other matters and things that to them shall or may appertain to do.
And be it further ordained, that for the well governing of the said corporation and the ordering of their affairs, they shall have such officers as they shall hereafter direct or appoint: Provided nevertheless, that twelve directors, one of whom shall be the president of the corporation, be of the number of their officers.
And be it further ordained, that Thomas Willing be the present president, and that the said Thomas Willing, and Thomas Fitzsimmons, John Maxwell Nesbit, James Wilson, Henry Hill, Samuel Osgood, Cadwallader Morris, Andrew Caldwell, Samuel Inglis, Samuel Meredith, William Bingham, Timothy Matlack, be the present directors of the said corporation; and shall so continue until another president and other directors shall be chosen according to the laws and regulations of the said corporation.
And be it further ordained, that the president and directors of the said corporation, shall be capable of exercising such power for the well governing and ordering of the affairs of the said corporation, and of holding such occasional meetings for that purpose, as shall be described, fixed and determined by the laws, regulations and ordinances of the said corporation.
And be it further ordained, that the said corporation may make, ordain, establish, and put in execution such laws, ordinances and regulations as shall seem necessary and convenient to the government of the said corporation.
[Provided always, that nothing herein before contained shall be construed to authorize the said corporation, to exercise any powers in any of the United States, repugnant to the laws or constitution of such State.]
And be it further ordained, that the said corporation shall have full power and authority, to make, have and use, a common seal, with such device and inscription as they shall think proper, and the same to break, alter and renew at their pleasure.
And be it further ordained, that this ordinance shall be construed, and taken most favorably and beneficially for the said corporation. Resolved, That it be recommended to the legislature of each State, to pass such laws as they may judge necessary, for giving the foregoing ordinance its full operation, agreeably to the true intent and meaning thereof, and according to the recommendations contained in the resolutions of the 26th day of May last.”
This was another step in the evolution of the watering down the duties and power of the Presidency. Power that was willingly delegated to a host of various executive departments and committees. Many of these new committees and positions, such as the Minister of Finance, were formed under Presidents Huntington and McKean to relieve the presidency of what became an almost unbearable task during the campaigns of 1780 and 1781. President John Hanson followed their lead, despite being relieved of the pressures of war, when he successfully proposed the removal of the voluminous correspondence tasks from his office. On January 28th, 1782 Congress passed Hanson’s resolution transferring the “signature” and other communication duties to the Secretary of the United States, Charles Thomson:
“Resolved, That it shall be the business of the Secretary 1st. To transmit to the Superintendant of finance, all papers referred to him by Congress; as well as an authenticated copy of every act, ordinance and resolution of Congress touching the finances of the United States and particularly of those which relate to supplies, the expenditure of public money or the settlement of public accounts: to the Secretary at War, all papers referred to him by Congress; as well as an authenticated copy of every act, ordinance and resolution touching his department and particularly of those which relate to military preparations or the land forces of the United States and: to the Secretary or agent of marine, or to the person entrusted with the duties of the office of Secretary or agent of marine, all papers referred to him by Congress; as well as an authenticated copy of every act, ordinance or and resolution touching his department and particularly those which relate to naval preparations and maritime matters: and to the Secretary for foreign affairs, all papers referred to him by Congress; as well as an authenticated copy of every act, ordinance and resolution of Congress touching his department and particularly of those which relate to the intercourse between the U. S. and foreign nations or which it may be necessary to communicate to the Ministers of these United States at foreign courts.
2nd. To return such answers as Congress shall direct to be given to the memorials petitions and communications: To keep a daily register account of all memorials, petitions and communications received by Congress, noting therein their object and the steps taken respecting them; and lay the said account or register every day, on the table of Congress for the inspection of the members.
3rd. To return such answers as Congress shall direct to be given to the memorials, petitions and communications, except where Congress shall judge it proper that the same be given by their President, or where it shall be the duty of any of the executive departments to return such answers:
4th. To attend Congress during their sessions, and, in their recess, to attend the committee of the states, to read the public despatches, acts, ordinances and reports of committees, and to make the proper entries in the journals; to authenticate all acts and proceedings not specially directed to be authenticated by their President; and to keep a register of all treaties, conventions and ordinances:
5th. To cause to be made and laid upon the table for every State represented in Congress, a copy of every ordinance or report upon a matter of importance, and not of a secret nature, for the consideration of which a day is assigned:
6th. To keep the public seal, and cause the same to be affixed to every act, ordinance or paper, which Congress shall direct:
7th. To superintend the printing of the journals and publications ordered by Congress: 8th. To keep a book in which shall be noted in columns, the names of the several members of Congress, the State which they represent, the date of their appointments, the term for which they are appointed, and the date of leave of absence.
Resolved, That so much of the act of 22 March, 1777, as directs that attested copies of resolutions coming within the purview of this act, be sent to the President, to be transmitted by him, be, and hereby is repealed.
Resolved, That the salary of the Secretary of the United States in Congress assembled, be three thousand dollars per annum.”
On February the 18th, 1782 the United States in Congress Assembled authorized George Washington broad powers to negotiate directly with Great Britain over the fate of Cornwallis and his army:
“Resolved, That the Commander in Chief be, and he is hereby authorised to negotiate a cartel or cartels, either general or special, with the enemy; stipulating for the subsistance, safe keeping, exchanging, liberating, and better treating of all prisoners of war, whether of land or sea, in such manner, and on such terms as he shall judge expedient and beneficial for the United States; and also to include therein all citizens not found in arms, who have been or hereafter shall be captured by either power, so that citizen shall be exchanged for citizen in all cases of their capture to take such measures for the liberation of citizens who have been captured not in arms, as may seem expedient; or to negotiate any seperate treaty concerning such citizens, for the mutual prevention of any future captures’ provided such cartel, cartels and agreement, establish rules for the similar treatment of prisoners of war and citizens captured by either power in all cases whatsoever.
That the Commander in Chief be also empowered to take measures for settling all past accounts respecting prisoners, and that all former resolutions relative to the exchange of prisoners by the Commander in Chief be repealed.
Resolved, That nothing contained in the resolution of this date for authorising the Commander in Chief to negotiate a cartel with the enemy be construed to authorize the exchange of Lieutenant General Cornwallis by composition.”
Washington acted quickly negotiating the release of former President Henry Laurens from the Tower of London for Lt. General Cornwallis on February the 23rd. Ramsay’s 1789 account of Laurens imprisonment and release gives a good indication of some of the hardships the former President faced:
“He had been committed there, as already related, on the 6th of October 1780, ‘On suspicion of high treason,’ after being examined in the presence of lord Stormont, lord George Germaine, lord Hillsborough, Mr. Chamberlain, Mr. Justice Addington, and others. The commitment was accompanied with a warrant to the Lieutenant of the tower to receive and confine him. Their lordships orders were
‘To confine him a close prisoner: to be locked up every night; to be in the custody of two warders; not to suffer him to be out of their sight one moment, day nor night: to allow him no liberty of speaking to any person, nor to permit any person to speak to him; to deprive him of the use of pen and ink; to suffer no letter to be brought to him, nor any to go from him.’
Mr. Laurens was then fifty five years old, and severely afflicted with the gout and other infirmities. In this situation he was conducted to apartments in the tower, and was shut up in two small rooms which together made about twenty feet square, with a warder for his constant companion, and a fixed bayonet under his window, without any friend to converse with and without any prospect or even the means of correspondence. Being debarred the use of pen and ink, he procured pencils, which proved an useful substitute. After a month’s confinement, he was permitted to walk out on limited ground, but a warder with a sword in his hand followed close behind.
Mr. Laurens’ sufferings in the tower became generally known, and excited compassion in his favour, and odium against the authors of his confinement. It had been also found by the inefficacy of many attempts that no concessions could be obtained from him. It was therefore resolved to release him, but difficulties arose about the mode. Mr. Laurens would not consent to any act, which implied that he was a British subject, and he had been committed as such, on charge of high treason.  Ministers to extricate themselves from this difficulty, at length proposed to take bail for his appearance at the court of King’s-Bench. When the words of the recognizance, “Our Sovereign Lord the King,” were read to Mr. Laurens, he replied in open court “Not my Sovereign,” and with this declaration he, with Mr. Oswald and Mr. Anderson as his securities, entered into an obligation for his appearance at the court of King’s-Bench the next Easter term, and for not departing thence without leave of the court. Thus ended a long and a painful farce. Mr. Laurens was immediately released. When the time of his appearance at court drew near, he was not only discharged from all obligations to attend, but was requested by lord Shelburne to go to the continent, in subserviency to a scheme for making peace with America. Mr. Laurens, startled at the idea of being released without any equivalent, as he had uniformly held himself to be a prisoner of war, replied that ‘He durst not accept himself as a gift, and that as Congress had once offered Lieut. Gen. Burgoyne for him, he had no doubt of their now giving Lieut. Gen. Earl Cornwallis for the same purpose.’ ”