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Why Americans Use the Title ‘President’ for Their Leader

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, left, takes the oath of office as U.S. First Lady-elect Melania Trump stands the 58th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States today, in a celebration of American unity for a country that is anything but unified. Photographer: Jim Bourg/Pool via Bloomberg

 

President. It’s the universally known term for America’s leader. But how did America decide on it? And were there other options? How close did we come to embracing the endearingly awkward “His Elective Highness”?

Lorraine Boissoneault has delved into the topic for Smithsonian. As the U.S. formed a nation and a government, there were many decisions to be made. These included what to call our leader. It was commonly accepted that “king” wouldn’t do, but what would? Ten weeks before George Washington took office, an epic discussion occurred. Boissoneault writes:

“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’).”

As noted, the choice took on profound philosophical implications. To some, the lack of a sufficiently “noble” title degraded the job. To others, it was essential to make clear this was a government of the people. (And how can you do that if the language suggests a new nobility?)

Eventually, “President of the United States” was the pick, to the relief of the first man to fill the office, who just wanted the argument to end. (Washington wrote: “Happily the matter is now done with, I hope never to be revived.”)

To read more about the challenge of choosing the title “president,” click here.