Monday, May 30, 2016
An ear for truth, George Washington was the 8th president of the United States?
This was the question when my morning news team presented their Interesting Fact on the last day of school. Neal proudly announced that George Washington was not the first President, but rather the 8th. Usually, I see their script the day before broadcast, but in the chaos of the last days, I had not seen it until 5 minutes before air time.
I knew that Neal found this fact on the internet, (that is where all digital natives go) and so we looked together to check for veracity by googling his statement. I did not believe it to be accurate. I explained to him that during the time between the revolutionary war and the ratification of the constitution (March 1, 1781, and April 30, 1789) we had the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION which meant that the 13 colonies in most ways operated idependently. I was not sure that the position of "president" even existed. But cetainly, the leader during this time would have had very limited powers.
As so often is the case, digging into history is complicated and a simple answer does not exist. The google search brought up ten articles which all concurred with Neal. Beginning with Wikipedia. So we went to air with his "fact." It was only later when I had time to do MY 'due diligence" that the truth was clear. This illustrates why teaching about research and sources is crucial! We need to discuss the value of crowd sourced reserch like Wikipedia (I am a proponent and editor). But we also need to acknowledge its limitations. Let me describe how I approached this question.
As a librarian I eliminated any of the articles that were ".coms" from initial consideration. There are perfectly good dot coms but I wanted scholarly, refereed sources as well as the actual document itself. That left just two of the ten sources to be viewed. One was the Constitution Society. Before I read their article I nosed around to see if I could find out if they had a bias. This usually means checking a statement about who the organization is, its purpose, and goals, and determining where their funding comes from. This group's self-description included the fact that it educates, and also litigates. For me, that elliminated them from my initial run through (I already knew that they concurred with Neal) so I moved on.
What propelled me to continue searching something that seemed overwhelmingly correct was the simple question, "Why would all our history books list George Washington, as our first President if this weren't true?" That is a question I am sure the conspiracy theorists have an arcane answer for.
A really good article from the Department of State outlines some of the debate surrounding the articles themselves. It turns out that John Hanson, was President of the Continental Congress in 1781. In this position he was not The President for his powers were so limited he could not even appoint the secretary of state. At least I knew now where the term "President" had come from. But I needed more. Did the people of his time consider him the president of the United States?
The definitive article on this issue came from Digital History, a University of Houston website with valuable primary sourced information and commentary by scholars. It clearly illustrates the difference between the kind of research real historians engage in and what I was doing. (They go to primary sources, discuss among colleagues the opinions they are forming about their meaning, and rigorously vet their information prior to publication). Here is a part of the article:
"It The Articles of Confederation created a national government composed of a Congress, which had the power to declare war, appoint military officers, sign treaties, make alliances, appoint foreign ambassadors, and manage relations with Indians. All states were represented equally in Congress, and nine of the 13 states had to approve a bill before it became law."
The Articles created an alliance of thirteen independent and sovereign states who agreed to "enter into a firm league of friendship with each other" This sounds more like NATO than the United States! In fact, in the Articles, at the beginning of almost all the statements issuing power to do anything come the words, "No State, without the Consent of the united States, in congress assembled..." So it was not surprising to find that John Hanson held the office known officially as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" In other words he was the president of the Congress or its presiding oficer. He had none of the powers we associate with our president.
The University of Houston article continues, "Under the Articles, the states, not Congress, had the power to tax. Congress could raise money only by asking the states for funds, borrowing from foreign governments, or selling western lands. In addition, Congress could not draft soldiers or regulate trade. There was no provision for national courts. The Articles of Confederation did not include a president. The states feared another George III might threaten their liberties. The new framework of government also barred delegates from serving more than three years in any six year period."
Indeed, going between the original Articles and then reading scholarly analysis helped me understand where all the 10 articles that Neal found went awry. With today's internet being a place where anyone can publish information and look official, we must be more vigilant. I was confident I had solved the question at hand. I could say that George Washington was in fact the 1st president of the United States, and that John Hanson held the office known officially as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" I then felt free to explore the internet to see what I could learn.
Googling the phrase "John Hanson president," I discovered one site that confused John Hanson with the African American and asserted that Barack Obama was not the first African American President!Upon googling "John Hanson, first black president" 830,000 articles appeared! Some of these eve had photographs of John Hanson! (Photographs only go back to about 1840) I did not go too deeply into this absurdity --- because it was clearly in the realm of conspiracy theory, but it illustrates again the difficulty in getting good sources for our students. The idea that whatever we perceive as truth is truth is a dangerous one and we need to help our students learn to ferret out facts while they are young, so that when it is time for them to vote they will have an ear for truth, but as we have an ear for good grammar.