Skip to content

For Fear of an Elective King

Title: For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789
Published by: Cornell University Press
Release Date: August 21, 2014
Pages: 240
ISBN13: 978-0801452987
Buy the Book: AmazonAudibleBarnes & NobleCornell University Press

 

Overview

In the spring of 1789, within weeks of the establishment of the new federal government based on the U.S. Constitution, the Senate and House of Representatives fell into dispute regarding how to address the president. Congress, the press, and individuals debated more than thirty titles, many of which had royal associations and some of which were clearly monarchical. For Fear of an Elective King is Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon's rich account of the title controversy and its meanings.

The short, intense legislative phase and the prolonged, equally intense public phase animated and shaped the new nation's broadening political community. Rather than simply reflecting an obsession with etiquette, the question challenged Americans to find an acceptable balance between power and the people’s sovereignty while assuring the country’s place in the Atlantic world.

Washington, as the new nation’s first executive, understood how controversial the Constitution remained, even after ratification, and realized the importance of building public acceptance of the presidency and federal governance, generally. He was sensitive to the attitudes of the people during the title controversy and mirrored the wishes of the majority of Americans who favored a simple, republican address of “President,” with no exalted appellation attached.

The resolution of the controversy in favor of the modest title of "President" established the importance of recognition of the people's views by the president and evidence of modesty in the presidency, an approach to leadership that fledged the presidency’s power by not flaunting it.

How the country titled the president reflected the views of everyday people, as well as the recognition by social and political elites of the irony that authority rested with acquiescence to egalitarian principles. The controversy’s outcome affirmed the republican character of the country’s new president and government, even as the conflict was the opening volley in increasingly partisan struggles over executive power. As such, the dispute is as relevant today as in 1789.


Contents

View the contents page


Reviews

"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."
Stuart Leibiger, from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in the Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall 2015
Read more of the review

"This book is tremendously rich in its historical account of the title controversy and in showing the dynamics of that controversy in a new and interesting way. The author reveals that a controversy that had previously seemed like nothing more than an odd 'side show' is actually illustrative of a fundamental shift in the republican character of the country. She also demonstrates that the controversy played a decisive role in republicanizing the Constitution and, by doing so, making the Constitution stronger."
Benjamin Kleinerman, from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in the American Historical Review, Vol. 121, No. 1, February 2016

"Bartoloni-Tuazon . . . demonstrates that the debate over titles went considerably beyond the Senate chamber where it had traditionally been located . . . [and] convincingly (and often entertainingly) shows the extent to which the titles controversy was a lightning rod for deeper American concerns in the early republic."
Finn Pollard, from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in American Studies, Vol. 54, No. 4, 2016.

"Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon, in For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789, offers such an impressive analysis of high politics and political theory and sets up so effectively the social and cultural landscape within which the conversation unfolded that everyone interested in the early Republic, broadly defined, should read it."
—Brian Steele, from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 131, No. 1, Spring 2016.

"What's in a name? Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon might disagree with Shakespeare's contention that 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.' At least, that is the implication of her recent book. In For Fear of an Elective King, she demonstrates that the use of a name, or in this case the selection of a presidential title, provoked considerate disagreement among the Revolutionary generation."
Mark Thompson, from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 2, June 2016.

"Bartoloni-Tuazon's well-crafted book investigates popular conceptions of the presidency . . . Her precise historiographical intervention arises from the question: 'How much like a monarch should the head of a republic resemble, particularly in the United States, whose revolution aimed at weakening the executive?'"
—Andrew J. B. Fagal, from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in the joint review "George Washington and the Making of America" in Reviews in American History, Vol. 44, No. 4, December 2016

*Choice Magazine--2015 Outstanding Academic Title
"The richness of sources from the founding years of the US has fueled historical studies on a wide range of subjects.  Still, there are overlooked topics.  Bartoloni-Tuazon, a visiting scholar at the First Federal Congress Project in Washington, DC, addresses one of them in this study of the heated debate over attaching an honorific title to a US president.  The author establishes that the question of title was more than just a political fight between the two houses of Congress; it was an issue being argued throughout the nation in the months before Washington’s inauguration.  Her well-crafted study provides a solid footing to understanding why Congress chose not to attach a title.  Although not a tome (six chapters and 165 pages of text), this is a first-rate scholarly work.  The text supports the fact that the author has diligently researched the use of titles within the US during this period.  Her research is also responsible for her deep knowledge of the national debate over a presidential title.  Helpful to scholars and advanced students will be the 56 pages of notes and the 16-page bibliography.  A mandatory acquisition for four-year institutions and major public libraries. Summing Up: Essential. Most public and academic levels/libraries.
J. J. Fox Jr., from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in Choice Magazine, April 2015

"This is an outstanding work of historical writing. All of Bartoloni-Tuazon’s assertions are strongly backed up with historical evidence.The book is thoroughly researched (with fifty-five pages of notes), and includes a very useful bibliography. In sum, this book is a balanced and thorough examinationation of an important episode in American history. The title controversy decided that America — at least until the twentieth century — would have a presidency of moderation with a lack of pageantry. “The outcome of the title controversy represented this emerging concept of an ideal national executive and, significantly, established the fundamental cornerstones of American democratic leadership.”
—Benjamin Huggins, from the review of For Fear of an Elective King in the Journal of the American Revolution, December 2014.
Read the entire review

"Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon explains why we have a president instead of a monarch in For Fear of an Elective King."
Vanity Fair, "Hot Type," October 2014.

"For Fear of an Elective King is a tightly focused and impressively researched book about the controversy over what to call the president during the opening days of the first Washington administration. Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon has examined an extraordinary array of materials on the question of titles more generally as well as on the debate itself in its legislative and public phases."
—Peter S. Onuf (quoted on book jacket), Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor, Emeritus, University of Virginia, author of The Mind of Thomas Jefferson

"Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon demonstrates that the debate over the proper title for the nation's new national executive wasn't trivial. For Fear of an Elective King suggests a variety of ways in which the debate touched on broader questions about the fundamental nature of the new nation's new republican government."
—Joanne Freeman (quoted on book jacket), Yale University, author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic


Q&A

Q: What was the presidential title controversy of 1789?

A:  The presidential title controversy of 1789 embroiled Congress in its first dispute—over how to address the new nation’s new executive. The Senate majority favored a lofty title while the House stood unanimously and adamantly opposed to anything more than the simple and unadorned “President.”

Q:  What were some of the titles that were considered?

A:  Congress, the press, and individuals throughout the country debated more than thirty titles, most with royal overtones. Suggestions for a title ranged from “President” to “His Majesty the President” to various forms of the frequently-used “Highness,” including the Senate-endorsed “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” Other examples include “Excellency,” “Elected Majesty,” “Sacred Majesty,” “Serene Highness,” “His Highness the President General,” and “The Delight of Human Kind.”

Read more