For Fear of an Elective King

For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789

Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    For Fear of an Elective King
    Book Description:

    In the spring of 1789, within weeks of the establishment of the new federal government based on the U.S. Constitution, the Senate and House of Representatives fell into dispute regarding how to address the president. Congress, the press, and individuals debated more than a dozen titles, many of which had royal associations and some of which were clearly monarchical.For Fear of an Elective Kingis Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon's rich account of the title controversy and its meanings.

    The short, intense legislative phase and the prolonged, equally intense public phase animated and shaped the new nation's broadening political community. Rather than simply reflecting an obsession with etiquette, the question challenged Americans to find an acceptable balance between power and the people's sovereignty while assuring the country's place in the Atlantic world. Bartoloni-Tuazon argues that the resolution of the controversy in favor of the modest title of "President" established the importance of recognition of the people's views by the president and evidence of modesty in the presidency, an approach to leadership that fledged the presidency's power by not flaunting it.

    How the country titled the president reflected the views of everyday people, as well as the recognition by social and political elites of the irony that authority rested with acquiescence to egalitarian principles. The controversy's outcome affirmed the republican character of the country's new president and government, even as the conflict was the opening volley in increasingly partisan struggles over executive power. As such, the dispute is as relevant today as in 1789.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7191-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Title Controversy and the Early Presidency
    (pp. 1-12)

    In the early spring of 1789, newly elected senators and representatives of the First Federal Congress arrived in New York City, committed to the implementation of the stronger federal government mandated by the Constitution. Within weeks, Congress became embroiled in a dispute over how to address the president—the Senate majority favored a lofty title, while the House stood unanimously and adamantly opposed to anything more than the simple and unadorned “President.” Suggestions for a title ranged from “President” to “His Majesty the President” to various forms of the frequently used “Highness,” including the Senate-endorsed “His Highness the President of...

  5. Chapter 1 An “Improper Distinction of Ranks”: The Persistence of Titles
    (pp. 13-29)

    The use of titles reflected America’s tangled past, and the decision whether or not to use a title could become a charged issue within the people’s often-fluid status relationships. Postrevolutionary society in the United States maintained an equivocal relationship with titles, and this ambivalence affected various aspects of life, ranging from common business transactions to the drafting and interpretation of the presidency within the Constitution. But what ever a person thought about titles, the fact was that appellations denoting military rank, occupational station, and political office were entrenched in the American experience. In parts the country, “contests for captaincies or...

  6. Chapter 2 The Third Body of Washington: Sovereignties in Confusion
    (pp. 30-56)

    George Washington’s presence—as a person, a leader, an icon, and the country’s first president—complicated both the question of a presidential title and interpretations of the place of the presidency within a government based on popular sovereignty. Americans believed that Washington would act appropriately as president, but his overwhelming popularity threatened to tilt the presidency toward monarchy. By 1789, he had occupied a unique place in the public consciousness for more than a decade and his celebrity had no equal within American society. Words like “regard” or “esteem” barely scratch the surface of the devotion directed toward the man...

  7. Chapter 3 Protecting the Presidency: A Republican Dilemma
    (pp. 57-77)

    Ratification era debates over the Constitution’s brief outline of the presidency reveal an emerging protectiveness toward the Republic’s new leader. Throughout American society, this attitude of care mixed with anxiety as people sought to balance conflicting fears that corruption might overtake the president, either in the guise of dangerously strong monarchical energy or as a debilitating weakness in the office. Debates about America’s new executive remained largely unresolved as members of the First Federal Congress assembled in the spring of 1789. Consequently, the issues raised about the presidency during ratification provide an important window on the confusion wrought by two...

  8. Chapter 4 Debating a “Doubtful Power”: The Legislative Battle Engaged
    (pp. 78-109)

    The inaugural spring of 1789 held celebration and uncertainty. The United States possessed a new Constitution, but no one knew how or whether it would work. New York City hummed with excitement as everyone prepared to receive Congress and the president. Entrepreneurial newspapermen sought financial backing as they prepared to report the House debates and workings of the new government. The first legislators to show up encountered remodeling still under way at Federal Hall and a frustrating absence of colleagues. Although March 4 had been set as the date for Congress to convene, quorum requirements limited work to unofficial discussions...

  9. Chapter 5 “Strange Contradictions”: The People Confront Status Distinction
    (pp. 110-131)

    The debate over a presidential title caught the public’s avid attention as Americans carefully came to terms with political leadership within their new constitutional order, an accommodation that encouraged acceptance of the presidency. As newspapers, legislators, and word of mouth reported the Senate’s title resolution of May 14, 1789, the question of an executive title provided the catalyst for a necessary postratification exploration of still unanswered questions about elite leadership in America. Public reaction tackled coincident notions of national character, the influence of rank and distinction, the inherent tension between liberty and authority, and the relative power of the state...

  10. Chapter 6 A “Dangerous Vice”: Leaders under Scrutiny
    (pp. 132-158)

    The Constitution and the governance it envisioned remained unproven in the spring of 1789. This was especially true with regard to the protection of the people’s liberties. The public sought an ideal of executive authority that would remain anchored in popular sovereignty and yet steer the country to an eminence that matched its boundless potential. The examples of conduct set by federal leaders not surprisingly influenced the consideration of political leadership within the public debate over executive titles. George Washington and John Adams, in particular, provided the public with contrapuntal models that informed the discussion of desirable traits for a...

  11. Conclusion: The Path to American Democratic Leadership
    (pp. 159-166)

    Attitudes toward the presidency remained precariously unresolved in 1789. Americans sought a clearer understanding of their new national executive before they could accept the power implied by the office. Yet, the Constitution left too much unexplained about the country’s singular central authority, and revolutionary fears of monarchy were thus aroused anew. The resolution of the conflict over titles marked by the endorsement of the modest address of “President of the United States” certainly offered the people relief from their fear of an elective king. The anxiety born of the ambiguity in the Constitution, however, meant that the title controversy formed...

  12. Appendix
    (pp. 167-168)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 169-226)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-244)
  15. Index
    (pp. 245-252)