By Judy Colbert
The United States had 14 presidents before George Washington. Surprised? Then a visit to The Westin Annapolis hotel on West Street is suggested.
The Hall of Presidents Before Washington exhibit at the hotel highlights the 14 presidents who ran the country under the Continental Congress, our first governing body beginning in 1774. The Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776 and the Constitution in 1789—George Washington was not inaugurated until April 30, 1789.
As a life-long area resident, I don’t recall studying these men—although some of their names are familiar—who led our country beginning with Peyton Randolph 1774 and ending with Cyrus Griffin in 1789. In between were Henry Middleton, Randolph (again), John Hancock, Henry Laurens, John Jay, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, John Hanson, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard H. Lee, Nathaniel Gorham, and Arthur St. Clair.
They each served about a year at a time as president of the Continental Congress or later, the Congress of the Confederation under the Articles of Confederation. Hanson, a merchant and public official, was the only Marylander who served in this position.
You’re excused if you don’t know about the men or the display. Brothers Sam, Steve, and George Brown, Annapolis-based attorneys, have been trying to tell these stories for years and are responsible for the exhibit. It’s so unknown that even some hotel employees don’t know about it or how these men participated in our country’s development.
The exhibit is a free, self-guided experience enhanced by signed documents, color portraits, and information panels that tell the story of those who governed the United States before, during, and after the Revolutionary War.
Attended by generations of descendants of McKean and Hanson, the exhibit was installed at the Westin in 2017 and includes portraits of the men and laser reproductions of 14 related documents pertaining to the events. Eleven of these papers are signed as president.
Mark Croatti, who teaches public policy and comparative politics at the University of Maryland, the U.S. Naval Academy, and George Washington University, is the director of the exhibit.
The accompanying website is a great resource to learn (or refresh your memory) about such items as the First American Republic, the other U.S. capitals before Washington (Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton, and New York), the Treaty (treaties) of Paris, Pre-Constitutional conventions, and an online Secrets of American History quiz that will prepare you for your Jeopardy! audition.
“It is the hope of the Brown brothers that the display someday motivates the city or state to create a Pre-Constitution Center, similar to what Philadelphia has done with the Constitution Center, where the entire Articles of Confederation period could be taught to visitors, including the unicameral Congress and the 14 who presided over it between 1774-1788,” says Croatti. “However, neither the city nor the state has shown interest in doing so since the exhibit was created at the Westin in 2017, and that’s where things have stood since then.”
Private tours and lectures to schools, civic, and other groups are available by contacting Croatti.
The Westin Annapolis, 100 Westgate Circle, Annapolis: presidentsbeforewashington.org