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Editor’s note:
On Wednesday, August 3, our summer lecture series continues with Dr. Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon’s book talk about her recent publication
For Fear of An Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789. Here, she offers a preview of her work. A limited number of books will be available for purchase at the talk. Pre-registration is requested.

–by Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon

I should like to be informed … of the public opinion of … myself—not so much of what may be thought the commendable parts, if any, of my conduct, as of those which are conceived to blemishes. … If they are really such, the knowledge of them … will go more than half way towards effecting a reform.

So wrote George Washington to his son-in-law and confidant David Stuart in July of 1789, in the early months of his presidency. He asked Stuart to be his confidential informant about his conduct as president and to write to him “without any reserve.” Washington realized the difficult and controversial position he had inherited with the office of the presidency. His continued popularity derived from more than his war hero status—it also stemmed from his ability to apprehend and reflect the pulse of popular opinion. Importantly, Washington comprehended the importance of the will of the people under the Constitution. He told Stuart that he wanted to know about local attitudes toward his leadership and correct any misunderstandings since “at a distance from the theatre of action, truth is not always related without embellishments.” He understood that calming public fears about the presidency—by mirroring public opinion when he agreed with it or considering a modification of his positions if the people demanded it—was an integral part of his leadership and even pledged to Stuart that he would reevaluate his stances and “effect a reform” if the public deemed his actions misguided. Washington recognized that “the eyes of America—perhaps of the world—are turned to this Government.” Perhaps no one was watched more closely than Washington.

George Washington, Arriving in New York City, April 30, 1789 by Arsene Hippolyte Rivey

Detail of George Washington, Arriving in New York City, April 30, 1789 (sic) by Arsene Hippolyte Rivey (New-York Historical Society)

Yet, in the spring of 1789, within weeks of the beginning of the first Congress under the new Constitution and even before Washington had been inaugurated, the House and the Senate became embroiled in their first dispute—how to address the president. The Senate majority favored a lofty title, while the House stood unanimously and adamantly opposed to anything more than the simple and unadorned “President.” The debate spilled far beyond the chamber doors and raged all summer long—Congress, the press, and individuals throughout the country debated more than thirty titles, most with royal overtones. Indeed, the eventual resolution in favor of the modest title of “President,” without an exalted introduction like some form of “Highness” or “Majesty,” was far from certain in a world that remained full of monarchs.

In 1789, much of America recognized the need for presidential authority and energetic leadership despite the ever-present alarm over the potentially abusive power or weak corruptibility of the office. Nothing signaled these apprehensions over the presidency more than the unanimous election of universally trusted George Washington as the new nation’s first president. To his credit, Washington understood this. Although his celebrity encouraged an elite court-like atmosphere wherever he went, Washington counteracted these tendencies early on with his opposition to a regal title. During the title controversy, he brought to his leadership both a widely admired perspective of republican reserve and a willingness to take cues from the people. By consciously mirroring the views of the majority of his countrymen and women, who disdained regal titles as he did, he encouraged public acceptance of the presidency, which added political legitimacy to the office and the new national government. During the unsettled early days of the Constitutional era, Washington imagined a course for the emerging nation’s executive that calmed public fears about the office by embracing the principles of modesty and a nod to the people. The republican resolution of the title controversy, a simple civic title of “President,” which both Washington and the people supported, established an approach to leadership and authority that fledged the presidency’s power by not flaunting it.

 

[1] George Washington to David Stuart, July 26, 1789, William Wright Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, David R. Hoth, Christine Sternberg Patrick, and Theodore J. Crackel, eds. The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series (PGW; Presidential). 14 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987—), 3:321–27.

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