Who was our first president? Guess again.

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Kevin Wagner
Kevin Wagner

Q. Can you tell me something about American government that I probably didn’t learn in school?

A. There is a great deal to choose from in that question but how about this: George Washington was not the first American with the title of president and our Constitution was not the first document in the United States to define the relationship between the people, the states and the national government. Washington also did not cut down a cherry tree and then confess to his father. That’s a tale that surfaced in a biography well after his death. But, I digress.

George Washington was the first president under the U.S. Constitution. However, prior to the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles constituted the supreme law of the land from 1781 until 1789, which is when the current Constitution went into effect. The Articles were written and passed by the Continental Congress in 1777 and were ratified by all 13 states in 1781.

The Articles were the product of a committee charged by the Second Continental Congress with deciding how our new nation would govern itself. The Committee itself was made up of 13 men — one representative from each colony. However, the principal drafter was John Dickinson, the delegate from Delaware. The document was about six pages long and was ultimately adopted by the Congress after some debate and revisions.

Most Americans learn in school that the Articles failed because they created a weak and often ineffectual central government. Under the Articles, the central government could not tax, set policy or regulate commerce. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison led an ultimately successful effort to replace the Articles with the far stronger government described in the current Constitution.

The Articles are often forgotten, but they did have a significant influence on our nation’s development. They represented a view that sought to limit central authority, which is still very much debated today. Further, it is often overlooked that the Articles were where we named our proposed new confederation of former colonies: The United States of America.

Under the Articles, the first President to serve a full one-year term was John Hanson, a representative from Maryland. However, since there was no executive branch, Hanson’s role was very different from our modern presidency. Hanson was the president of the Congress of the Confederation, which is closer to what we would call a prime minister today. The job was far more ministerial, and it included duties like signing official documents and dealing with correspondence.

President Hanson was one of nine men to serve in that role, and while he only did it for about a year, he played an important part in leading our new nation and helped shape the structure of our democracy. Like George Washington, there is a statue of John Hanson in the U.S. Capitol. Interestingly, Hanson is often credited with establishing the

4th Thursday in November as the date for Thanksgiving. Bet you didn’t learn that in school.

Kevin Wagner is a noted constitutional scholar and political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. The answers provided do not necessarily represent the views of the university. If you have a question about how American government and politics work, email him at kwagne15@fau.edu or reach him on Twitter @kevinwagnerphd.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: George Washington wasn't our first president, not by a longshot.