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The Leaders of the First American Republic

Popular histories of the early Republic have seen a boom over the past decade or so, with nearly every Founding Father enjoying a new biography and a number of best-selling authors adding their takes on the era. 

But one moment in the revolutionary epoch has remained a historical “black hole,” in the words of College of Charleston political science professor Thomas Patrick Chorlton, who shines some light on the darkness in “The First American Republic: 1774-1789,” covering the period that begins with the First Continental Congress and ends with the implementation of the Constitution.

Histories of the Articles of Confederation era have been written, of course, but Chorlton takes a path less traveled, focusing on the 14 men who served first as president of Congress, then (after ratification of the Articles) as president of the United States in Congress Assembled. 

“It took a long time to figure out who these guys were,” Chorlton said in an interview. He said he spent more than two decades researching and writing the book.

Chorlton calls them “The First Fourteen American Presidents Before Washington,” in the book’s subtitle. But theirs was a very different office than we know today. Under the Articles of Confederation, the presidency held some prestige but little power. The men who held it spent a good deal of their time begging the states to supply tax money to support the central government — a lot of pleading, but not much leading.

Some of their names are familiar: Richard Henry Lee, John Jay, John Hancock. Others have a more mid-level fame. Samuel Huntington and Thomas McKean, for example (like Hancock and Lee) were signers of the Declaration of Independence.

“Some took charge, like Lee and McKean. Others were honest brokers, like Huntington,” said Chorlton, who will give a lecture and sign books at noon Thursday at the National Archives. 

Peyton Randolph, the first president of Congress, was an important man in pre-revolutionary Virginia, speaker of the House of Burgesses and the “obvious” man for the job, Chorlton writes, but not a well-known figure to later generations.

Cyrus Griffin, the last of the pre-Constitution presidents, rests in an unmarked grave, perhaps the most-forgotten Founding Father.

That, as much as anything, is the beauty of “The First American Republic.” It gives life to long-forgotten figures of American history who deserve to be remembered, who were “very central,” Chorlton said, to the success of the American experiment.

Chorlton writes in an informal, non-academic style, even referring to the presidents by their first names throughout the book. The structure also helps guide the reader through the period, which might not be all that familiar to many who are well-schooled in revolutionary America and in the debates surrounding ratification of the Constitution but aren’t too sure about the period in-between. He devotes a single chapter to each presidency, including a mini-biography of each man and a narrative of the major events of the period.

Also included is a chapter on Charles Thomson, who served as secretary of Congress for its entire pre-Constitution life. If anyone could be considered the ultimate under-appreciated Founding Father it would be Thomson, who was swept away with the rest of the old regime when George Washington became president under the Constitution.

Thomson never held elected office, but Chorlton calls him “the greatest patriot of all” and asserts that, “Without his prodding and pleading, Congress would never have survived. Without his faithful service, the record of the First American Republic would be lost to history.”

As Chorlton ably demonstrates, it’s a history well worth keeping alive.

CHECK OUT

Author Thomas Patrick Chorlton will speak about his book, “The First American Republic: 1774-1789,” at noon today at the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives on Constitution Avenue Northwest, between Seventh and Ninth streets.

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