The forgotten first president (Hint: It wasn’t George Washington)

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Top Line

Here’s a Thanksgiving pop quiz: Who was the nation’s first president?

If you answered George Washington, pass the gravy and get ready for a history lesson. It was actually John Hanson, a founding father whose name is largely forgotten in the pages of American history – until now.

“They were both first presidents. We've had two governments,” said Peter Michael, a descendent of Hanson’s who is working to revive his memory as the first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the Constitution.

“George Washington was very famously the first president of our second government under the Constitution,” Michael told “Top Line” during a recent interview outside a replica of Hanson’s historic home in Frederick, Maryland. “But for eight years before the birth of that second government, we had an original government chartered under the Articles of Confederation. It had its presidents, the first of whom was John Hanson."

Michael, who has authored a biography about his ancestor’s life and also presides over a memorial association in his honor, explained that Hanson played a central role in putting the United States on solid footing in the wake of the Revolutionary War.

“John Hanson and his Congress inherited a blank slate and had to create a government from whole cloth and they did -- and successfully,” Michael said. “If they hadn't, the United States might not have existed."

Under the Articles of the Confederation, the young United States was governed under a single unified government, without separate executive and legislative branches. And Hanson, as an elder statesman at age 66, was nominated by his peers in Congress to lead the fragile new government in 1781.

“The American icons of the Revolutionary period -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, [and] others -- looked to John Hanson as the one [who] twice saved the nation and also to Hanson's way with people,” Michael said. “When no one else could do it, he persuaded the six states with the western lands to cede the western lands.”

We also have Hanson to thank for Thanksgiving.

"Thanksgiving, as an observance, had been recognized since the days of the pilgrims,” Michael said. “But it fell to John Hanson to establish Thanksgiving as an official annual observed holiday. It became a paid holiday, and a day off, in the Franklin Roosevelt administration."

Hanson served a one-year term as president and died a year later in 1783.

But in the decades and centuries following his death, Hanson’s memory would be largely forgotten to history. So forgotten, in fact, that his home in Frederick, Maryland, was demolished in the 1980s (a replica has since been built in its place) and his grave, in Prince George’s Country, Maryland, was paved over to make way for a parking lot. The burial site remains unmarked today.

To learn more about the nation’s forgotten first president, check out this episode of “Top Line.”

ABC News’ Ali Dukakis, Chris Carlson, Gary Westphalen and Gale Marcus contributed to this episode.