Guest column/Remembering Arthur St. Clair
In February, we celebrated the birthdays of Washington, Lincoln and all the other 42 presidents who have been elected since the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress in 1789.
Today, we celebrate the birthday of the ninth president of the United States in Congress Assembled, Arthur St. Clair. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because, as Northwest Territorial governor, he was also the founder of Jefferson and Belmont counties and made Steubenville and St. Clairsville as their county seats.
Originally founded as Newellstown by St. Clair’s cousins, the Newell family in 1798, the town was renamed St. Clairsville in celebration of Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s many contributions to Washington in winning the Revolutionary War.
As we remember St. Clairsville’s namesake in March, perhaps March would also be an ideal month to remember President St. Clair and the 13 other presidents of Congress you’ve probably never heard of. These brave men each served one-year terms as our country’s presidents before, during and after that miraculous American victory over the British, the Revolutionary War.
From 1774 to 1788, these men were America’s chief executives to the world. As presidents of the United Colonies and then the United States under the Articles of Confederation, they also served as presidents of the colonies and then Congress.
Perhaps for the first time, here are the names of these great patriots who served as presidents of the United Colonies from 1774 to 1781: Peyton Randolph of Virginia, Henry Middleton of South Carolina, John Hancock of Massachusetts, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, John Jay of New York and Samuel Huntington of Connecticut.
From 1781 to 1788, these men served as presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled: Samuel Huntington of Connecticutt, Thomas McKean of Delaware, John Hanson of Maryland, Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachussets, Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania and Cyrus Griffin of Virginia.
Before the Declaration of Independence officially declared our freedom from Great Britain and the rest of the world on July 4, 1776, the 13 colonies needed a document setting forth the operational guidelines about how they would work together. Hastily put together by representatives from each of the colonies, it existed as the only guidelines until the Constitution.
Arthur St. Clair was elected to Congress in 1785 and was elected president for the 1787 term. This is of interest to those of us who know of St. Clair’s later contributions to Ohio, because as president of Congress in 1787, he helped invite the 55 constitutional delegates to Philadelphia, persuade Washington out of retirement to chair the convention and, as president of Congress, presided over the drafting of two of our country’s most important documents, the United States Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance.
The Constitution was ratified by the states during 1788 and approved by Congress in 1789.
Since they had already elected Washington as the 11th president of Congress for 1789, Congress decided that the office was now greatly expanded by the authority of U.S. Constitution and Washington should be the first president of the United States.
(Phillips, a resident of St. Clairsville, is an Ohio Valley historian.)