The Man Who Would Precede George Washington

A man in Norwich, Conn., says the actual first president of the United States was Samuel Huntington of Norwich, who served under the Articles of Confederation. Bill Stanley, president of the Norwich Historical Society, is seeking ten million dollars to build the presidential library he says Huntington deserves.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In Norwich, Connecticut, local history buffs want to build a library honoring the first President of the United States, Samuel Huntington. Yes, you heard me correctly. During the Revolutionary War, Samuel Huntington was a leader of the Continental Congress, and the Norwich Historical Society argues that he and nine other men were president before the Constitution was written. NPR's Robert Smith reports on this unusual historical quest.

ROBERT SMITH: George Washington may have been first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, but for Norwich historian Bill Stanley:

BILL STANLEY: Technically, he was the 11th president.

SMITH: Stanley is the head of the Norwich Historical Society, and he's brought me to their local version of Mount Vernon, a three-story colonial house just off the highway.

STANLEY: This is the residence of Samuel Huntington when he was signer of the Declaration of Independence, president of the Continental Congress and Governor of the State of Connecticut.

SMITH: There's not much left inside marking it as a historical site. It's been subdivided into offices. But in the old dining room there is still a picture of Huntington in his black coat and white-powdered wig.

STANLEY: He looks very presidential. In fact, George Washington is mostly in profile. This guy's looking straight at us and I think he's saying, would you please get me the respect and honors that I deserve? That's what I see in those eyes.

SMITH: Stanley us 76 years old and has taken it on as a hobby to defend the underdogs of history. He spent a couple of decades trying to get a gravestone for Benedict Arnold, another Norwich native. And now his mission is the recognition of Huntington. Before you go looking for the name in your old history textbooks, I'll explain.

After the Declaration of Independence but before the Constitution was written, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. The head of the Legislature was called the President of the United States in Congress Assembled.

Huntington was the first of 10 men to hold the title before George Washington was elected.

STANLEY: George was fighting a war. God bless him. There were other men running the country.

SMITH: But let's make this perfectly clear. Although Huntington held the title President, it was a very different office than the one we know by that name today. Huntington wasn't Commander In Chief or the head of the Executive Branch. He was the presiding officer of the Congress, more like the Speaker of the House.

But that doesn't matter, Bill Stanley says.

STANLEY: This is a chapter of history that has been totally forgotten, and that's why we say, the forgotten founders.

SMITH: Stanley is trying to assemble a conference of historians to re-evaluate these early American leaders, and hopes to eventually raise $10 million dollars to build a presidential library and museum in Norwich. Then they'll have to figure out what to put inside it. The challenge is that Huntington's a bit of an enigma. The historical society has few artifacts.

STANLEY: We have his remains, but not much else.

SMITH: They have no correspondence or essays.

STANLEY: Samuel Huntington was a very quiet man. He didn't write a lot.

SMITH: Paula Buddington, a board member of the historical society, says Huntington just wasn't a mythic figure like Washington.

PAULA BUDDINGTON: You don't hear any stories about Samuel Huntington. He was just a local boy who did his job.

STANLEY: And did it darn well. A sensible administrator who stood on principle and never made much of his accomplishments.

SMITH: You see America loves a winner. And the Articles of Confederation failed miserably. The war hero became the father of our country and the sensible administrator went back to Connecticut.

Stanley takes me out back of the house through the snow to Huntington's tomb. It was crumbling and over grown before the society rebuilt it to near presidential luster.

STANLEY: The site will be lighted day and night and the colors will fly day and night.

SMITH: I'm looking here at his gravestone and it says Governor of Connecticut. It says, served in various important offices.

STANLEY: Yes.

SMITH: But even when he was buried, no one put President of the United States on there.

STANLEY: No.

SMITH: Did it ever occur to you that maybe for Samuel Huntington, he didn't want anyone to make a big deal out of this?

STANLEY: He was a modest man but just because he was modest doesn't mean that America shouldn't celebrate his greatness.

SMITH: And who knows, perhaps some day there'll be a holiday for all the modest men and women who just did their jobs. A celebration of the forgotten administrators.

If you want to mark your calendar, Samuel Huntington's birthday is July 16th. Robert Smith, NPR News.

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