Firsts and Superlatives

Americans love a winner. That’s what General George Patton said, anyway.  I don’t disagree with the old polo player and 1912 Olympic pentathlete, but I’ll go a step further and say that Americans also love superlatives. We enjoy learning about them – the first, the best, the biggest, the highest, the lowest, the hostess with the mostest. Finally, we like to know the stories behind their stories, the real scoop. So here, in no particular order, are several firsts, superlatives, and back stories that I hope you find interesting.


The First President of the United States

John Hanson

The first president of the United States was not George Washington.  His name was John Hanson.  He was from Maryland, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and was the first of eight men to serve one-year terms as president under the Articles of Confederation.

On March 1, 1781, Maryland’s ratification of the Articles put them into effect. In November of that year, Hanson became the first President of the Continental Congress to be elected for an annual term as specified in the Articles.  His title was “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”

Unlike the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation did not enumerate the powers of the president.  There was no executive branch of the government, and the presidency was largely a ceremonial position.  But Hanson and his successors were the only individuals who had the responsibility to correspond and negotiate with foreign governments.  John Hanson also approved the Great Seal of the United States, which is still in use today.

Upon his death on November 21, 1783, an obituary in the Maryland Gazette read, in part, “It is doubtful that there ever lived on this side of the Atlantic a nobler character or shrewder statesman…And it is extremely doubtful if there has ever lived in an age since the advent of civilization a man with a keener grasp of, or a deeper insight into, such democratic ideals as are essential to the promotion of personal liberty and the extension of human happiness. He was firm in his opinion that the people of America were capable of ruling themselves without the aid of a king.”


The World’s Highest Mountain

Mount Everest (29,027 feet above sea level) is not the highest mountain on the earth. The highest, when measured by distance of mountain peak to the center of the earth, is Mount Chimborazo (20,702). Chimborazo is an extinct volcano in Ecuador. It is right near the Equator, and because the earth bulges out at the Equator due to centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation, Chimborazo’s peak is 7,109 feet farther from earth’s core than Everest’s.

Near Chimborazo is Cayembe, slightly lower and directly on the Equator. it is the only place on the Equator where there is snow year-round.


The First All-America Quarterback

In 1889, Caspar Whitney of Harper’s magazine selected the first All-America college football team.  All of the team’s members were from the “Big Three” teams – Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The quarterback on the team was Edgar Allan Poe, who played for Princeton. He was named for his famous second cousin twice removed.

The story goes that after Princeton beat Harvard 41-15, a Harvard man reportedly asked a Princeton alumnus whether Poe was related to the great Edgar Allan Poe. The Princeton guy replied, “He is the great Edgar Allan Poe.'”

Poe graduated Phi Beta Kappa and later served as the Attorney General of the State of Maryland from 1911 to 1915.  Had he been born a century or so later, he would certainly have been a first round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens.

The Richest Country on Earth

Anton Florian von Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein has the world’s highest per capita income. It is also the only country in the world to be named after people who purchased it, the only country of the Holy Roman Empire that is still in existence, and the world’s biggest exporter of false teeth.

Liechtenstein is Europe’s fourth-smallest country (after Vatican City, Monaco, and San Marino). It is named for the Liechtenstein dynasty, which from around 1140 had possessed Castle Liechtenstein in Lower Austria. Through the centuries, the Liechtensteins acquired vast tracts of land in Central Europe. But all of their territories were held as fiefs under other nobles; none of the lands were held directly under the imperial throne. That meant the Liechtensteins were unable to qualify for a seat in the Reichstag, the imperial parliament.

The family wanted into the Reichstag, so they finally arranged to purchase the “lordship,” of Schellenberg in 1699 and the county of Vaduz in 1712. These places fit the bill; their sovereigns reported directly to the Emperor.

On January 23, 1719, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI decreed that Vaduz and Schellenberg were united into a single territory. He raised the territory to the status of principality and named it in honor of his “true servant, Anton Florian of Liechtenstein.”   That’s how Liechtenstein became a sovereign member state of the Empire.  It is the only surviving state (of around 1,800) of that Empire.  Not a bad accomplishment, but it’s not like the owners actually cared about the place.  No princes of Liechtenstein even set foot in the principality for over 120 years after it came into being.

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