What kind of job is president of the United States? The Constitution created it as an elective office, whose occupant serves at the pleasure of Americans who vote. But it is also the heart of a mighty enterprise, so much so that critics have bemoaned the growth of the “Imperial presidency.” Recently “King Obama” has become a refrain from his critics on the right.
The uneasiness over presidential authority isn’t just a product of current political polarization, or even of America’s global dominance since last century. In fact, it runs so deep in the history of the republic that it was the subject of the very first dispute between the House and the Senate. Before the first federal Congress took up the issue of amendments or settled on national financial instruments, it argued over a question whose answer we now take for granted: What should the president be called?
The great presidential title debate is little-examined today, and rarely comes up in history books. But it gripped the nation in 1789, in newspapers and in legislative sessions. Suggestions for a title ranged from the plain to the royal—from the simple “President” to “His Majesty” or various forms of the frequently used “Highness.”
The numerous titles under consideration at the time offer a window into the novel circumstances of America’s situation in 1789, as a young and increasingly democratic nation in a world where most power still resided with monarchs. And, perhaps even more relevant today, the debate also illustrates the warring impulses at work in what we really want from our leaders.
Of the possible presidential titles that were originally under consideration, the strangest-sounding to us today may be the honorific of “Washington.” In the popular and unanimously elected George Washington, America’s first president, people tended to see what they wanted to see, and felt secure as long as he occupied the presidency. Looking back to the time when “Caesar” became the title of subsequent Roman emperors, some Americans suggested that bestowing the presidential title of “Washington” would be the best way to assure that his virtues and prestige might pass to his successors. Title opponents, though, answered convincingly that their Revolutionary War hero had not fought against the British king just to have a crown of his own, and that separating the person from the office offered a clearer way of thinking about a presidential title.
Most benign highness
The new and untried presidency provoked a strong protective impulse from Americans on both sides of the title dispute. Those clamoring for a simple title abhorred monarchical rule and dreaded a strong, despotic president. But there was a case to be made on the other side as well. Many Americans believed a strong title would guard against the risk that a weak executive could become the corrupt tool of a powerful few, especially influential elites in the Senate or foreign powers.
An important voice on this side was John Adams, a Massachusetts native and Washington’s vice president. A Revolutionary War firebrand at the Second Continental Congress, Adams worried that an American aristocracy would emerge to overwhelm the new national leader, much as a royal court could manipulate its king, and one way to guard against that would be a toweringly impressive title. America’s governors already held the titles of “Excellency” or “Honorable,” and the chief executive would need something grander. (As for the unadorned “President,” he somewhat infamously observed that there were presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs.) For Adams, nothing would do but “Highness,” “Most Benign Highness,” or “Majesty”—a title that would put the leader on a par with the monarchs he would face in world affairs. His advocacy for such a traditionally high address ultimately hurt Adams: He alarmed his revolutionary cohorts, lost political influence, and came to be seen as a tacit monarchist.
The Senate found itself in a bind when it came to the issue of a presidential title. The senators, who were drawn from the elite of their respective states, risked being labeled monarchists if they favored a strong title, but if they did not give an imposing title to what many at the time saw as a weak executive, they risked being damned as aristocrats out to subvert the authority of the new national executive.
The Senate went on record to recommend the title of “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties,” which senators saw as in keeping with global title conventions. As the debate unfolded in three weeks of closed-door wrangling, the chamber also considered some curious hybrids, like “Elective Highness” and “Elective Majesty”—whose strangeness to present-day ears is a testament to the novelty of the American experiment at the time.
On May 14, 1789, the Senate capitulated to the House’s wish for the modest title of “President of the United States,” offering the people relief from their fear that the president might become an elective king. Contrary to Adams’s fear that a humble civic title would diminish the office, the office began to elevate the title: Over time, Washington’s name accompanied by the simple title of “President” atop treaties and proclamations endowed the plain honorific with a sense of power and command. (Washington himself was never called “Mr. President”; he continued to be addressed as “Sir,” “General,” and “Excellency” until the end of his days.)
The title dispute was settled, although the newspapers and American people continued to debate the ideas behind it. Concerns about the weakness or strength of the president would go on to shape future deliberations over the veto, the power of removal, treaty-making, and other powers to which the Constitution only alludes.
Today, our periodic discord over the “Imperial presidency” both continues a longstanding inclination for protectiveness toward the office—and attests to how hard it is to determine the proper role for an increasingly formidable type of world leader.
Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon is a visiting scholar at the First Federal Congress Project in Washington, D.C. She is the author of “For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789” (Cornell University Press, 2014).