Fact check: $2 bill depicts financier of American Revolution Robert Morris

·6 min read

The claim: First U.S. president was a Black man named John Hanson who can be seen on the back of $2 bill

George Washington is widely accepted as being the first U.S. president when he took office in 1789. But a viral social media post claims that actually isn't the case.

"If you ever look on the back of a 2$ bill (sic) you'll see the very first president," reads a Facebook post shared on July 21, 2015, which began circulating widely again in recent weeks.

A photo accompanying the post shows the back of a $2 bill and a finger pointing to a seated man in a crowd who was purportedly the first U.S. head of state: a Black man named John Hanson.

The post has garnered over 108,000 shares and 33,000 likes since it was posted to Facebook. USA TODAY reached out to the poster for comment.

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While the image does appear to be a $2 bill, the post has its history confused, muddling three different historical figures.

There were two John Hansons, one of whom was indeed a Black man. This Hanson was not a U.S. president. The other Hanson, a white man, served as president of the early federal government before the government was reorganized and reestablished under the U.S. Constitution.

And neither is depicted on the back of the $2 bill.

Post confuses multiple men

The claim asserts the first president was a Black man named John Hanson who appears on the $2 bill, but it's wrong on both counts.

A man named John Hanson, a former slave from Maryland, brought his freedom and moved to Liberia in 1827.

Liberia, then a West African colony, had been founded by freed American slaves a few years earlier. Throughout the early and mid-1800s, organizations like the American Colonization Society encouraged formerly enslaved Americans to relocate there. Hanson went on to become a senator in Liberia, USA TODAY reported.

He never held a leadership post in the U.S. government.

There is a man named John Hanson with a claim to being the first U.S. president, but he was white (more on him later). And neither Hanson appears on the $2 bill.

The image on the back of the $2 bill is based on a painting by John Trumbull depicting the moment on June 28, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress was presented the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, according to the Architect of the Capitol.

The man pointed out by the Facebook post is Robert Morris, according to the government's key to the painting. Morris was white.

It is unclear why Morris appears darker on the back of the bill than in Trumbull's painting, but it could be possibly due to the bill being printed in monochrome, PolitiFact reported.

Born in Liverpool, England, in 1734, Morris immigrated to the American colonies in his teens and eventually ascended the ranks to become a wealthy shipping magnate and influential Philadelphia resident, NPR reported.

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While he is famously known for bankrolling the American Revolution, Morris is also notable for being one of two Revolutionary-era figures to have signed all the founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

Two John Hansons

The other John Hanson was a white man and held the office known officially as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" from 1781 to 1782.

That Hanson was born in Charles County, Maryland, in April 1715. He first served in the Maryland Assembly from 1757 to 1773 and then as a delegate to the Continental Congress – an early legislative body that served as the provisional government of the 13 American colonies.

After the first constitution, called the Articles of Confederation, was ratified by the colonies in 1781, the Continental Congress became known as the "Congress of the Confederation" or the "United States in Congress Assembled," USA TODAY previously reported.

While the Articles of Confederation granted the Continental Congress federal authority to perform functions such as declaring war, signing treaties and levying taxes, its power didn't supersede that of individual states.

"It was weak by design," Peter Michael, author of "Remembering John Hanson: A Biography of the First President of the Original United States Government," told USA TODAY. "No one was more acutely aware of this than the nine men who served as president of the first government."

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Hanson served as this Congress' first president from 1781 to 1782. It was a position that didn't have the broad executive presidential powers later established by replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution – drafted in order to create a stronger federal government – in March 1789.

Whether the white John Hanson should be considered the first president of the United States is open for debate, historians say.

"He was the first president of the United States, but it depends on how you define that," Mark Croatti, an adjunct professor of comparative politics and the American presidency at George Washington University, told USA TODAY. "There's qualifiers involved."

Croatti suggested a number of men could reasonably be called the first president before Washington was elected in 1789.

Michael, a descendent of the white John Hanson, noted that leaders in that era, including Washington himself, referred to Hanson as the first president. But neither Hanson nor any of the men who held the title of president before Washington were Black.

Hanson died on his nephew's Maryland plantation in November 1783, a year after leaving office. He was 62.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim the first U.S. president was a Black man named John Hanson who can be seen on the back of the $2 bill. This claim muddles three different historical figures. A Black man named John Hanson was a slave in the U.S. before immigrating to Liberia and becoming a senator there, but he didn't serve in the U.S. government. Morris, known as the financier of the American Revolution, is the man who appears on the back of the $2 bill. The other John Hanson, who is white, served as the first president of the Continental Congress Assembled, an early federal government that operated under the Articles of Confederation prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Historians say whether the white John Hanson should be considered the first U.S. president is open for debate.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Back of $2 bill depicts financier Robert Morris

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