John Hanson (1791-1860)

John Hanson
John Hanson

John Hanson was a Liberian senator during the mid-19th century who has been erroneously claimed as the first Black president of the United States. Not much is known about Hanson’s early life. He was born into slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, around 1791. According to some historians, Hanson purchased his freedom but the method and year are unknown.

In 1816 the American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed in Washington, D.C., with the purpose of sending former enslaved people to a colony in West Africa. In 1822 the ACS established that colony. That year two members of the Society purchased land for the colony at Cape Mesurado, on the west coast of Africa. The new colony was named Liberia in 1824 and the first Black settlers in Liberia named the city they founded, Monrovia, after then U.S. President James Monroe.

Hanson emigrated to Liberia in 1827 through the Society and quickly became a member of the mercantile and political elite formed by these former slaves. The ACS, which controlled the colony until its independence in 1847, organized the Commonwealth of Liberia in 1839 and appointed its first governor, Thomas Buchanan. Hanson was elected as a senator of the newly established Colonial Council in December 1840, representing Grand Bassa County. John Hanson died in Liberia in 1860 at the age of 69. After his death, Hanson was hailed as a faithful, loyal, and patriotic servant of the young nation, only the second Western-style republic (after Haiti) in the world at that time, by Stephen Allen Benson, then president of Liberia.

False information about Hanson as the first Black president of the United States had already been circulating long before the internet. The new media, however, spread that information much farther and much faster than ever before. Hanson was often confused with a white politician of the same name, who was falsely claimed to be the first president of the United States. in 1781, this other man was named president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation before the U.S. Constitution officially established the office of president of the United States. Because of his position as president of the Congress, some have erroneously argued that he, not George Washington, was the actual first president. Adding to the confusion was the fact that Hanson has been thought to be the dark-skinned man on the back of the $2 bill. The image on the $2 bill shows the drafting of The Declaration of Independence by painter John Turnbull. The image some claimed as Hanson is actually Robert Morris, one of the original signers of the Declaration. Morris’s image appears dark on the bill due to the type of printing used then.