Founding Fathers Friday: Samuel Huntington
by Derrick G. Jeter
History has gotten it all wrong—George Washington wasn’t the first president of the United States, he was the eleventh. Or so the Norwich (Connecticut) Historical Society would have us believe. Their favored son, Samuel Huntington, they say, should be remembered as the first president of the United States.
Huntington didn’t aspire to become president of the United States. He simply aspired to get off the family farm and out of the cooper (barrel making) industry. With Lincoln-like determination and ingenuity, and natural gifts, Huntington acquired for himself an education through reading books. As an apprentice barrelmaker the 16 year old Huntington borrowed books and devoured them during his breaks, even learning Latin. Within ten years or so he was hanging out his shingle: “Sam. Huntington, Esq., Attorney at Law.”
With a promising law practice in Norwich, the young Huntington was in need of a bride. He found one in the form of a minister’s daughter, with a serendipitous name: Martha Devotion.
It seems odd that Huntington would rise in the ranks of politics, for the man was painfully shy. He could neither speak well nor write well—two traits generally required for politics of any time and traits particularly admired among the Founders. Yet, as was said of him in an early biography:
Investigation was a prominent characteristic of his mind, and when this faculty led him to a conclusion, it was difficult to turn him from the path of his determination. Hence as a devoted Christian and a true patriot, he never swerved from duty, or looked back after he had placed his hand to the work. The cultivation of this faculty of decision we would earnestly recommend to youth, for it is the strong arm that will lead them safely through many difficulties, and win for them that sentiment of reliance in the minds of others, which is so essential in securing their esteem and confidence. It was this most important faculty which constituted the chief aid to Samuel Huntington in his progress from the humble calling of a ploughboy, to the acme of official station, where true greatness was essential, and to which none but the truly good could aspire.
The “faculty” of Huntington’s mind led him the Connecticut legislature, to an appointment as a judge, and eventually to Philadelphia as a member of the Continental Congress, where he voted for independence and signed the Declaration.
Huntington served as a mere member of Congress until 1779, when John Jay was appointed the United States minister to Spain, and then was elevated to President of Congress. Huntington held this position for almost two years, until he grew ill and had to retire to Connecticut and his devoted Martha Devotion. She nursed him back to health and Huntington got back into the political fray. He became the chief justice of Connecticut’s supreme court, lieutenant governor of the state, and then Connecticut’s third governor.
Huntington died in 1796, while serving as governor and would have passed into history as just another forgotten signer if it wasn’t for what happened on March 1, 1781. On that date, the Articles of Confederation were adopted. The Articles were America’s first attempt at a collective constitutional government—transforming thirteen independent colonies into something like thirteen “dependent” states to form the United States of America. Huntington was serving as the “President of the Continental Congress” at the time, but with the ratification of the Articles his title was changed to “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” So, according to the Norwich Historical Society, Samuel Huntington was the “real” first president of the Untied States.
Most historians and Constitutional scholars agree, however, that the presidency of the Articles really didn’t constitute a presidency as we know it. The Articles of Confederation make no provision for an executive branch, while Article II, section 1 of the Constitution stipulates the title and power of the American presidency. So, conclude historians and legal scholars, Huntington may be the first man to hole the title “President of the United States,” he was by no means the first man to hold the power as president of the United States.
Undaunted, the Norwich Historical Society has petitioned Congress to recognize Huntington (and his Martha as the first First Lady) and the nine other “forgotten presidents” who held the post of President of United States in Congress Assembled as true presidents of the United States. Thus far, Congress has refused to grant their request, ensuring once again that George Washington, and not Samuel Huntington, was the first president of the United States (and his Martha as the first First Lady).
P.S: The nine other “presidents” include Thomas McKean (Delaware), John Hanson (Maryland), Elias Boudinot (New Jersey), Thomas Mfflin (Pennsylvania), Richard Henry of Lee (Virginia), John Hancock (Massachusetts), Nathaniel Gorham (Massachusetts), Arthur St. Clair (Pennsylvania), and Cyrus Griffin (Virginia).