Answer Man

Answer Man: John Hanson — father of our country?

Q. A friend of mine likes to show off his knowledge of history. He says that George Washington was not the first president of the United States. In fact, he says, the man for whom St. Clair County is named was one of more than a dozen men who held the post before Washington. Is he on the level?

— T.J., of New Athens

A. Technically, yes, I suppose. But in practice, those pre-Washington presidents were like Alexander Haig when he boldly announced “I am in control here” after John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan in 1981.

In other words, plenty of pomp with little substance.

Your friend, of course, is describing the situation between 1776, when the U.S. declared its independence, and 1788, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified and spelled out our current form of government. During that period, the country was guided first by the Second Continental Congress until 1781 and then the Congress of the Confederation (although it is still popularly called the Continental Congress, too).

Both bodies chose presidents, so, in the very strictest terms, I suppose you could say they were the leaders of the country. But most historians say that any resemblance between them and post-Constitution chief executives is strictly in title only.

In fact, it was designed that way from the beginning. Perhaps to avoid creating another monarchy like the one they were trying to break away from, those early congresses gave their president less power than the speakers in the colonial legislatures. He could not set legislative agenda, make committee appointments or meet with foreign leaders. There was no salary, and, after the Articles of Confederation, terms were limited to one year.

“[T]he President of the United States is scarcely in any sense the successor of the presidents of the (Continental) Congress,” historian Edmund Burnett wrote. “The presidents of Congress were almost solely presiding officers, possessing scarcely a shred of executive or administrative functions; whereas the President of the United States is almost solely an executive officer, with no presiding duties at all. ... the two offices are identical only in the possession of the same title.

Still, if they were smart enough, they apparently could throw their weight around.

“Lacking specific authorization or clear guidelines, the presidents of Congress could with some discretion influence events, formulate the agenda of Congress, and prod Congress to move in directions they considered proper,” historian Robert Morris argues. “Much depended on the incumbents themselves and their readiness to exploit the peculiar opportunities their office provided.”

Perhaps that’s why some well-known names wound up taking the spot, including John Hancock; John Jay, who would become the first chief justice of the Supreme Court; Richard Henry Lee, whose resolution at the Virginia Convention had led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence; — and Arthur St. Clair, who as governor of the Northwest Territory would establish St. Clair County in 1790.

So, you’ll still see those on the Internet arguing that Maryland’s John Hanson became the first president when he was chosen to head the first Congress of the Confederation in 1781. But for most, it’s simply another interesting obscure trivia question in American history.

Q. Could you actually play a gold record if you earned one?

— E.L., of Fairview Heights

A. Yes, but what you hear might not leave a song in your heart. While you are reportedly given a real disc that has been painted, the record may not necessarily be yours, according to numerous anecdotes from the music world.

One story from The Music Collector’s Magazine reported that a somewhat tipsy Eric Burdon, of the Animals, once decided to play one of his group’s gold records that was hanging in his mother’s house. He said he turned it on, sat down, closed his eyes — and was treated to a song by Connie Francis.

Although most honorees probably don’t try such a stunt, others who did have reported similar results. Bob Shane, lead singer for the Kingston Trio, once hung down his head when he found his “Tom Dooley” prize was actually Dean Martin’s “Volare.” And, when Bill Wyman, of the Rolling Stones, cued up some of his, he reportedly heard everything from Ferlin Husky to the soundtrack of “Bambi.”

For the record, gold discs now are awarded for singles and albums that top the 500,000 sales plateau. (You get platinum for 1 million and diamond for 10 million.) The first gold record was presented in 1942 by RCA Victor to Glenn Miller for selling 1.2 million copies of “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” They did not become an industrywide staple until 1958, when Perry Como earned one for “Catch a Falling Star.”

Today’s trivia

Thomas Jefferson divided books in his sizable library into three major categories. What were they?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: As they were sailing across the Atlantic to a new home, Stephen and Elizabeth Hopkins also welcomed a new life into the world, the only baby born on the Mayflower during its historic voyage in 1620. To mark the occasion, they named their new son Oceanus, the Latin word for ocean. Their joy, however, was short-lived. Although official records are not known, Oceanus is thought to have died during that first winter or within a year or two; he was not listed in the 1627 Division of Land. Just after the ship docked at Cape Cod, Susanna White gave birth to a son, Peregrine, an adjective meaning “traveling.” He lived to the ripe old age of 83, but his father, William, died just three months after arriving in the New World. Just three months later, Susanna would marry widower Edward Winslow.

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