Teaching Materials
Ask a Master Teacher
Lesson Plan Gateway
Lesson Plan Reviews
State Standards
Teaching Guides
Digital Classroom
Ask a Digital Historian
Tech for Teachers
Beyond the Chalkboard
History Content
Ask a Historian
Beyond the Textbook
History Content Gateway
History in Multimedia
Museums and Historic Sites
National Resources
Website Reviews
Issues and Research
Report on the State of History Education
Research Briefs
Best Practices
Examples of Historical Thinking
Teaching in Action
Teaching with Textbooks
Using Primary Sources
TAH Projects
Lessons Learned
Project Directors Conference
Project Spotlight
TAH Projects
Technical Working Group
Research Advisors
Teacher Representatives
Quiz Rules
Teaching History.org logo and contact info

Was There an African American President Before Barack Obama?

John Hanson, circa 1770

Someone that I know has been posting that Barack Obama is not the first African-American President, that indeed there was an African-American President before him, John Hanson.

I did my own research and found that John Hanson was the President of the Constitutional Congress, something quite different than the President of the United States (considering the United States wasn't even formed then). I also found that the John Hanson that was the President of the Constitutional Congress was not African, he was indeed Swedish.

I have found web sites that claim there is a cover-up about John Hanson and say that he was an African and that history has been changed to make him appear white. They have a photo of a man that they claim to be him. However, I don't believe these claims. I don't know who the man in the photos is, but I do know that there was a John Hanson who lived a hundred years after the John Hanson that I'm looking for, he was from Liberia and African—but NOT the president of the Constitutional Congress.

I am wondering if you can help clear the air in some way. The only reason I have a problem believing what they say, is because of the time period that they claim this happened in. There is no way that the people of that era would have voted for an African President of anything. I obviously don't agree with discrimination and racism, I just believe that given the circumstances of that time, the claims of John Hanson (president of the Continental Congress) are untrue. Will you please help me prove this to my friend, beyond doubt?


John Hanson, who held the office that was known officially as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" from November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782, died in November 1783 long before the invention of photography. The African-American man in the photograph that you saw on a website could not have been this John Hanson.

The Meaning of Freeman

The possibility remains that the John Hanson in question had one or more African ancestors, either known or not known to his colleagues or even to himself. J. Bruce Kremer, one of Hanson's biographers, states that Hanson's grandfather and his three brothers emigrated in 1642 from Sweden to the recently formed New Sweden settlement on the Delaware River with newly appointed Governor Johan Printz. Kremer points out that one of the Hanson brothers, Andrew, had the same name as "Andrew Hanson, freeman, who once worked as a farmhand" for New Sweden landowner and military leader Lieutenant Måns Kling, the owner of a tobacco plantation on the Schuylkill.

Whether this Andrew was the same man as John Hanson's great-uncle, "must be a matter of conjecture," Kremer concludes.

One could conjecture, therefore, that John Hanson had an African ancestor as he may have been related to a man described as a freeman, that is, a freed black slave. Yet, the term freeman, in the context of the 17th-century New Sweden colony, did not indicate a freed black slave, as one might assume. According to Gregory B. Keen of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who has researched and written about the New Sweden colony, "The 'freemen' (frimännen)— so called because they had settled in the colony entirely of their own will, and might leave it at their option—held land granted them in fee, temporarily not taxed, which they cultivated for themselves, being aided also by the [Swedish West India] Company with occasional gifts of money, food, and raiment." Such "freemen" were distinguished from criminals forced to leave Sweden who had to work for a few years in New Sweden before they were classified as frimännen.

Those who believe that John Hanson was black might argue that his signing of the Proclamation of the Freemen of Maryland lends credence to the claim of African heritage. The Freemen of Maryland, however, was not an association of freed black slaves but of men advocating resistance to what they perceived as British tyranny in the period that led to the colonists' break with England. On July 26, 1775, the Freemen of Maryland resolved that the American colonies "be put into a state of defense" and approved armed resistance to British troops.

The Internet provides proponents of conspiracy theories with a way to reach a vast audience. Googling the phrase "John Hanson first black president" retrieves more than 350,000 hits. One website argues that because Hanson's signature is not to be found on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, and that a black man appears in the engraving on the back of the two-dollar bill of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, therefore a conspiracy to keep knowledge of Hanson's African-American identity from the public must have occurred. Yet Hanson was not a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1776, the year in which all but one of the signers signed the Declaration. Hanson died before the Constitution was created. Hanson, however, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention beginning in June 1780 did sign and ratify the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. In addition, while the skin color of one figure on the back of the two-dollar bill is ambiguous, the engraving was based on the painting in the U.S. Capitol by John Trumbull of the signing of the Declaration. In the painting, none of the figures have black or brown skin.

Historical Certainty

Historians cannot claim to prove "beyond doubt" that occurrences in the past did or did not happen. In a recent book on historical epistemology, Allan Megill acknowledges that historians cannot provide proofs of absolute certainty to support knowledge claims about the past. "Some persons of hypercritical bent demand that all knowledge be certain knowledge," he writes. "Following established philosophical tradition, they take all certain knowledge to fall into one of two categories. These are, on the one hand, the immediately certain knowledge of one's experience and, on the other, the logical certainty that is accorded to valid deductive reasoning. Neither of these forms of certainty is attainable to historical knowledge, however." Even a seemingly indisputable factual proposition such as "Napoleon Bonaparte existed," Megill argues, cannot be proven with absolute certainty since the past cannot be experienced in the present and Napoleon's past existence cannot be proven using logical deductive reasoning.

Rather than look for proof "beyond doubt" of beliefs about the past, historians instead should try to determine how well beliefs in question help, in Megill's words, "make sense of the totality of the historical record." In cases in which two or more accounts are credible, he advises that "the responsible historian will clearly indicate that the matter is not beyond dispute."

Historians then will examine evidence that supports rival claims and judge which is the best explanation on the basis of such evidence, an operation he terms "inference to the best explanation." In cases in which one account "is far better at accounting for the totality of the data than the alternatives," he insists that "the historian has every right to claim that such-and-such was the case."

With regard to John Hanson, historians thus have the right to claim that he was not black, with one caveat. As with all European Americans, Hanson may have had African ancestors in the far distant past if the arguments of scientists who claim that all humans have roots in African hominids are to be accepted, as opposed to the views of scientists who offer claims that humans developed independently in multiple regions.


Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904–37), 19:213–14, 222; 23:582.

J. Bruce Kremer, John Hanson of Mulberry Grove (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1938), 60–61.

Gregory B. Keen, "New Sweden, or the Swedes on the Delaware," in Justin Winsor, ed., Narrative and Critical History of America (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1886), 4:460.

Hester Dorsey Richardson, Side-lights on Maryland History, with Sketches of Early Maryland Families (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1913), 371–73.

Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 128–29.

Why couldn'nt a black man of

Why couldn'nt a black man of the time be a black president, when in fact blacks did everything to build a country who gave them no credit, stolen ideas, always in the shadows of whites but forever doing the work, these comments are bias and based upon what? All because a few whites want to believe that there history is without blemish and error not needing blacks to help them do anything, because they are such a perfect people. Who made the dollar bill? and who thought to put the black man on it?

In view of the fact that the

In view of the fact that the Black Man is the Progenitor of Earth and all men are offspring; and the White Man is a Black Man that has bleachout. No color, has he, no "hue". Many years ago the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, remarked that, "there is no such thing as a white race, much as this is talked of, but every white man is a faded or bleached one." White is the abscene of color, so just what is this natural caucasian. The Virginia Laws state "if you have one drop of Black blood then you're Black". Natural caucasian....there is no such thing; Man first came out of Africa to populate the world. The English scholar, Joseph McCabe, expresses the following view as the consensus of opinion among modern anthropologists:-"There is strong reason to think that man was at first very dark of skin, woolly -haired and flat-nosed, and, as he wandered into different climates, the branches of the race diverged and developed their characteristics." So the question is-- was he the first African American President? KDL.

how can you tell hes not

how can you tell hes not swedish? or dutch or english, i cant see what you mean to my knowledge Hanson was black or ethnic but its hard to find evidence for this.


Look on the back of a 2

Look on the back of a 2 dollar bill, and the guy sitting in the pic is not swedish whatsoever. The library of congress website has his picture on it and this one here my brother, is not it!

The actual debate: The

The actual debate:
The actual debate in question is not if John Hanson was the first African American president, but rather the first Black or (non-Caucasian) president. As for being first, the Smithsonian, in my opinion actually had it right. Although Huntington and McKean must be recognized as presidents, Hanson was the president when the British surrendered and Hanson was in fact the first delegate to be unanimously elected by all delegates from all thirteen colonies as well.

As for a black man obtaining that level of power in that particular era:
It was hard to distinguish a highly educated, well groomed, fashionably dressed, political/social savvy and moderately wealthy non-Caucasian from a natural Caucasian. These characteristics were all that were needed for light skinned and/or mixed race individuals to be confused with or be accepted as (depending on your view) a natural Caucasian.

As for the conspiracy to diminish the truth:
Although Hanson is hardly if at all recognized in elementary and low-level academia, His legacy lives on in display through-out Maryland, Philadelphia and our nation’s capitol. Therefore, there can not be an omission of truth just the distortion of fact.

It is important for us who research, write and debate history to invite others into the game. The real truth here is that the playing fields in reference to ethnic history has always been unbalanced and much of that credit can be attributed to the personal emotions of a few governmentally controlled historians of the past. Today's historians have no interests in or reasons to bury the facts and/or intentionally distort the truth. It is the documentation of the truth that substantiates their education and establishes a purpose for being. Show me a historian who would not enjoy the mere concept of re-writing the distorted context and content of history and I'll show you a politician who believes that one can change history by simply re-creating it.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <b> <i>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

Enter the characters shown in the image.