Inauguration

Why America Has a “President” Instead of an “Exalted Highness”

The title just used to mean someone who presided over a meeting

The rainbow at the top right in the window of the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (detail) was an 18th century symbol of God's blessings. (Gift of Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, NPG)
smithsonian.com

In 1789, the year of George Washington’s election, America had spent six years recovering from the Revolutionary War and twice that amount of time trying to nail down what form the new nation’s government would take. The Articles of Confederation, an admirable failure of decentralization, would be replaced by the U.S. Constitution. But even with that binding document and a democratically elected leader, what would the United States of America call its new chief executive?

A king by any other name would be just as tyrannical—or so thought the earliest American politicians (and the Romans, who abhorred the title “rex” and its dangerous association with unchecked power). With only 10 weeks until Washington was to take office, Congress asked what now seems like a straightforward question: what should Washington’s title be? After all, he was the first of his kind, the leader of a newborn nation. And America couldn’t go on to another king after having just revolted against one.

So the debate began. Some delegates to the Constitutional Convention suggested “His Exalted Highness,” with others chiming in with the more democratic “His Elective Highness.” Other suggestions included the formal “Chief Magistrate” and the lengthy “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of Their Liberties.” The debate went on for multiple weeks, according to historian Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon, because the House of Representatives worried that too grand a title might puff Washington up with power, while the Senate feared Washington would be derided by foreign powers if saddled with something as feeble as “president” (the title originally meant, simply, one who presides over a body of people‑‑similar to “foreman”).  

“…[T]he debate over whether or not to give the president a regal title represents an early consideration of constitutional intent, just as it also comprises the ‘first dispute between the Senate and the House,’” Bartoloni-Tuazon writes in For Fear of an Elective King. “The fight over titles was hardly frivolous. The controversy explored an important constitutional question: How much like a monarch should the head of a republic resemble, particularly in the United States, whose revolution aimed at weakening the executive?”

The question of titles was a concern to the Founding Fathers even outside political office. Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution states that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Alexander Hamilton called the clause a “cornerstone of republican government,” saying that without titles of nobility, “there can never be serious danger that the government will be anything other than that of the people.”

Eventually the Senate agreed to the simplified version of their grandiose title, and Washington became President of the United States. “Happily the matter is now done with, I hope never to be revived,” Washington wrote at the conclusion of the ordeal.

While the debate over titles has mostly ended, the question of how to address former officials is ongoing. Some former presidents and politicians choose to be addressed by their titles even after their careers are over (not Washington, who reverted to his military title of “general” after leaving office, or John Quincy Adams or Harry Truman). Boston University professor of Law Jay Wexler says that while the practice of holding onto one’s title after leaving office isn’t unconstitutional, it does create a permanent class of citizens who keep their titles of distinction forever and is therefore “inconsistent with the spirit of the [constitutional] clause.”

But as etymologist Mark Forsyth reminds us in his TED Talk on the subject, titles and their meaning and uses are always changing. “Politicians try to pick and use words to shape and control reality, but in fact, reality changes words far more than words can ever change reality,” Forsyth says.

Since the creation of the office of president, the title has undergone its own permutations. In 1903 the pronounceable acronym “POTUS” first came into use, and was quickly followed by FLOTUS (First Lady of the U.S.) and SCOTUS (for the Supreme Court). Then came the moniker “Leader of the Free World,” with origins dating to the United States’ entrance to World War II. But even after two centuries and dozens of men taking the office, the original title still remains the most potent one: Mr. President. 

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