Mr. President: Washington, the Presidency & the Indispensable Title Controversy of 1789 Open Access
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AbstractMr. President: Washington, the Presidency & the Indispensable Title Controversy of 1789In the early spring of 1789 and within weeks of the start of the new government, the Senate and House became embroiled in a fight over how to address the president, a serious constitutional issue for republicans that formed the leading edge in increasingly partisan struggles over interpretations of executive power. Suggestions for a presidential title ranged from the unadorned "President" to "His Majesty the President" and various forms of "Highness." Congress, the press, and individuals throughout the country debated more than a dozen titles, most with royal overtones. In a world full of monarchs and with the United States struggling for respect on the world stage, the republican resolution in favor of the modest title of "President of the United States" remained far from certain. The presidential title controversy demonstrated that attitudes toward the Presidency remained precariously unresolved in 1789. Both the legislative and public debates on titles served as indispensable extensions of an unfinished ratification discourse regarding the Presidency that involved conflicting interpretations of dangerous strength (leading to monarchy) or disastrous weakness (leading to corruption of the president by aristocratic cabals of Senate or other elites). Cultural attitudes toward first president, George Washington, and societal attitudes toward titles, in general, added to the dispute.So much more than an obsession with etiquette, the people of the early republic saw the presidential title controversy as a referendum on how to balance power and authority with individual freedoms in American society and politics. The controversy's anti-monarchical outcome constituted an essential reckoning that affirmed the republican character of the American Revolution.