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

Author:Thompson, Mark
Position:Book review

For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789. By Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. 252 pp.

What's in a name? Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon might disagree with Shakespeare's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." At least, that is the implication of her recent book. In For Fear of an Elective King, she demonstrates that the use of a name, or in this case the selection of a presidential title, provoked considerable disagreement among the Revolutionary generation. After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and creation of a new government in 1789, Americans, first in Congress and then more widely in print, argued about an appropriate title for the nation's head of state. His Most Benign Highness, His Excellency, and His Majesty the President were among the many suggestions. These contentious debates, Bartoloni-Tuazon proposes, have not been given sufficient attention by historians but reveal much about the meaning of Americans' revolution and how they wrestled with their monarchical past, elitist tendencies, and republican or democratic ideals. The presidential title dispute "set off a firestorm of controversy as America sought to clarify its vision of itself' (p. 29).

The First Congress of the United States convened in early 1789 and adopted as one of its first tasks the selection of titles for the nation's president and vice president, with the former garnering all of the attention. The impending arrival of George Washington underscored a practical need to settle the issue, but members of Congress realized it spoke to much bigger concerns about the nature of the presidency, the relative power between state and federal governments, and relations with foreign countries. After three weeks, the House of Representatives insisted upon the unadorned title of President of the United States, while the Senate begrudgingly concurred, but only after stating its preference for a more ornate one. Rancorous debate then spread across the nation, as Americans expressed their opinions in correspondence, newspapers, pamphlets, and even plays.

Bartoloni-Tuazon explains these arguments in the context of Americans' understanding of sovereignty, their proclivities for or against honorifics and pomp, and...

To continue reading