Friday, June 11, 2010

King George?

Well over two hundred years into the history of the United States under the current Constitution, we have become accustomed to the way our system of government works--even if we aren't always very happy with it. Yes, there have been very significant changes in the party system, the way Congress functions, the relationships among the various branches and even the number of Supreme Court justices on the bench. I've just started reading Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty (Oxford, 2009), and I am finding myself consistently impressed--and often amused--by the origins of Constitutional government (as in our Constitution, and not just the little-c practice, generally speaking).

One especially interesting example:

Many members of Congress and the new administration, including Vice President/President of the Senate John Adams, were considerably exercised by what to call the new president. It was a strain in and of itself to conceive of how an executive would fit into a republican form of government. Some early leaders felt the presidency should be a quasi (or even actual) monarchical position. These were very serious debates and decisions, and the question of nomenclature was by no means inconsequential. After all, the way we label things as societies indicates the importance with which we view them, as well as the ways which we construe our own relative positions.

So, what were we to call the man formerly known as General Washington? Even state governors were known at the time as "His Excellency." "His Highness?" "His Most Benign Highness?" "Elective Highness?" Surely the title of "President" was not enough. As John Adams pointed out, the world was littered with piffling little "Presidents" of fire companies and cricket clubs. Even the diplomatic corps enjoyed more elevated titles. Adams again: "What will the Common People of Foreign Countries, what will the Sailors and Soldiers say [about] George Washington, President of the United States? They will despise him to all eternity."

In the end, James Madison was able to restore order and what we would from our, twenty-first century perspective, consider a sense of reason to the debate, pointing out that such high-flying presidential titles would instigate a slippery path toward "a crown and hereditary succession." He was able to sway most of his fellow congressmen to go along, Adams' predictions of eternal doom aside, with the good republican title of "President of the United States."

Madison had succeeded in establishing a precedent that mitigated against monarchical tendencies. The debate over the powers and tendencies of the executive would continue--and really, it continues to this day. Americans have continued to pose questions about relative authority and the rights and responsibilities of Congress, the Supreme Court and the President. As recently as Franklin Roosevelt's time in office, the Executive Department was a tiny institution; today, it is enormous. By the 1960s and 1970s, we faced a national debate over the rise of what some called an "Imperial Presidency," characterized by barriers to presidential access, presidential usurpation of the Senate's role in foreign policy and more than a few extremely dirty tricks. As society evolves and the problems facing government evolve with it, these debates are sure to continue.

In the meantime, I leave you with Washington's own preferred title. Oh, how many chuckles we all could have gleaned. No more "Mr. President." Rather, we would have in our midst, Barack Obama, "His High Mightiness."

All quotations and specific pieces of information pertaining to the presidential-title debate taken from Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty (Oxford, 2009), pp. 83-85. Evidently there was some precedent for the "High Mightiness" title; the leaders of the States-General of the United Dutch Provinces were known by this term.

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