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Who’s That Named For? The John Hanson Highway

Most of us know it as the road to the beach. Here's the minor revolutionary figure it's named for.
John Hanson's legacy. Photograph by Flickr user Larry Wilbourn.

Washington is full of buildings, roads, bridges, and other structures named for obscure historical figures. “Who’s That Named For” is an occasional series dedicated to deciphering as many of our area’s lesser-known memorials as possible. Got a name you can’t recognize? E-mail us and we’ll figure it out.

If you’re headed to the beach this weekend, chances are that at some point along the journey toward the Eastern Shore, you’ll find yourself sitting in traffic somewhere Maryland’s John Hanson Highway. Wait a sec, “John Hanson Highway”? What’s that?

That’s Maryland’s official name for the road that runs from the District’s border with Prince George’s County to the far side of the Severn River across from Annapolis. If it’s an unfamiliar name, that’s because it’s more commonly known—and cursed about—as US Route 50. (It also carries segments of US Route 301 and Maryland Route 2, in addition to also being an unmarked part of the Interstate Highway System.) But this is all still very fuzzy. Who is this John Hanson for whom this essential but contemptible highway is named?

John Hanson, part of Frederick County’s landed, slave-owning gentry, was one of Maryland’s signatories to the Articles of Confederation in 1781, but his more famous legacy is an apocryphal reputation promoted by his biographers that he, not George Washington, was actually the first president of the United States. Don’t worry, George’s reputation is secure. But Hanson’s fans point to his stint as president of the Continental Congress, during which the Articles of Confederation, the United States’ primordial governing document, took effect.

John Hanson. Portrait by John Hesselius, circa 1790.

It’s a nice title, but a pretty flimsy grasp at power. President of the Continental Congress was a completely ceremonial position rotated among the body’s members, and one could just as easily make the same “first president” claim for Hanson’s predecessors like Peyton Randolph or John Hancock. In Hanson’s case, the argument came primarily from a 1932 biography by Seymour Smith, which was roundly bashed by another Hanson biography published in 1976 as being devoid of actual academic research.

Like most secondary revolutionary figures, Hanson’s true legacy is in stamps, middle schools (in Oxon Hill and Waldorf), and a few statues. One is outside the courthouse in Frederick; the other sits in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, though Maryland lawmakers have recently considered yanking him in favor of Harriet Tubman. At least he still has the beach traffic.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.