Constitutional FAQ Answer #126
Q126. "Was George Washington the first President of the United States?"
A. This is a question that is commonly asked of students in high school - the answer seems obvious — yes, of course George Washington was the first President. But if it is so obvious, why is the question being asked? Is there another answer? The short answer is, Yes, George Washington was the first President of the United States. The long answer is a bit more complicated.
Before the United States was established under The Constitution, there was another country called The United States. This nation was established under The Articles of Confederation. The two nations were geographically the same, but very different politically. Without doubt or debate, George Washington was the first person elected to the Presidency of the United States under the Constitution. So was there a President under the Articles, and if so, isn't that person the first President of the United States?
Under the Articles, there was no executive branch. So there was no President in the way we know it today. The only branch of government established in the Articles is the legislative, called "The United States in Congress assembled," or just "Congress." The Articles specified that there would be a presiding officer elected to a one-year term from the membership of Congress. The duties and expectations of this person are never detailed. This person was known as the presiding officer of the United States in Congress assembled, or President of Congress, or just as President. The President under the Articles and the President under the Constitution are completely different offices with completely different roles in the government. The first presiding officer of Congress was John Hanson.
The long answer, then, is that the first President of Congress was John Hanson, but the first President of the United States was George Washington.