- For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789 by Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon
First federal Congress, Title controversy, George Washington, John Adams, Federalists, Anti-Federalists, James Madison
The first clash between the House of Representatives and the Senate occurred less than three weeks after the convening of the First Congress [End Page 485] in April 1789. In For Fear of an Elective King, Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon, a visiting scholar at the First Federal Congress editing project, chronicles the neglected but crucial Title Controversy. In this struggle, the Senate abandoned its quest to give George Washington a regal title when the House insisted on addressing the chief executive simply as ‘‘the President of the United States.’’ The outcome, according to Bartoloni-Tuazon, ‘‘fledged the presidency’s power by not flaunting it,’’ resulting in a strong but democratic chief executive (12).
Bartoloni-Tuazon shows how Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and Vice President John Adams led the Senate’s quest for the designation, ‘‘His Highness the President of the United States, and Protector of Their Liberties’’ (113). The outspoken Adams feared that the Constitution left the president too weak vis-à-vis Congress and the states. He thought that a title would help prevent the executive from becoming a tool of aristocrats in the Senate, or the sport of European powers. ‘‘Presidents,’’ Adams sneered, led ‘‘Fire Companies’’ and ‘‘a Cricket Club,’’ not ‘‘a great and independent Nation’’ (25, 27). A title would command respect at home and abroad, he insisted. Without one, people would ‘‘despise’’ the executive ‘‘to all eternity’’ (101). Bartoloni-Tuazon explains that Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay, Virginia Congressman James Madison, and the entire House of Representatives responded that a title would violate Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution (prohibiting titles of nobility), needlessly fanning fears of executive tyranny.
The congressional debate triggered a national public discussion that lasted over a year. Most Americans did not care that the adulation of Washington resembled the worship of the divinely anointed monarchs of Europe, writes Bartoloni-Tuazon, but they agreed with the House that the president should not have a pretentious title. The outcome in Congress reassured those worried about the new regime’s direction.
According to Bartoloni-Tuazon, President Washington recognized titles as anathema to the people and that the dispute could damage his reputation. By resisting the Senate’s designs, he enhanced his standing as America’s most beloved and trusted leader. Bartoloni-Tuazon argues that Adams, in contrast, tone-deaf to popular fears of monarchy, lost influence with the president and dramatically weakened his own political standing. Privately, Maclay described Adams as a ‘‘monkey just put into Breeches,’’ while Ralph Izard of South Carolina, speaking behind the closed doors of the Senate, dubbed the vice president, ‘‘His Rotundity’’ [End Page 486] (101). More devastating publicly was Edward Church’s poem denouncing Adams as ‘‘The Dangerous Vice’’ (132). Despite sustaining severe, lasting political damage, Adams won election as the second president in 1796 thanks to ‘‘Washington’s coattails’’ (162). Bartoloni-Tuazon makes the intriguing argument that by alienating Washington with his crusade for a title, Adams not only permanently ‘‘empowered the president to dominate the executive branch,’’ he also permanently diminished the office of the vice president (164).
This delightfully well-written and meticulously researched book is by far the fullest and finest study of the legislative debate over a presidential title, and it is the only study of the public debate over the controversy. Bartoloni-Tuazon shatters several myths about the event. The contest was not a frivolous waste of time that diverted Congress from more important matters such as enacting constitutional amendments and federal revenue legislation. Rather it addressed a serious question: How monarchical should the chief executive be in a republic? President Washington did not condone the quest for a title, he opposed it. Washington was never addressed as ‘‘Mr. President.’’ The struggle did not simply pit Federalists against Anti-Federalists. Instead, it involved competing...