Throughout their colonial history, Americans were ruled by imperial kings and queens and colonial governors. While 17th-century England was politically ravaged between the supporters of the king’s prerogatives and the House of Commons, American assemblymen sporadically battled politically with their governors. In declaring their independence, Congress condemned George III as a despot and then drafted a written constitution with a weak unicameral Congress without a separate executive. New state constitutions kept the basic structure of colonial governments but eviscerated the governors while greatly empowering state assemblies. Although governors often had grandiose titles and were usually referred to as “His Excellency,” they had but little real authority. After the war, the shortcomings of these federal and state constitutions became readily apparent.
One of the most difficult tasks facing the Constitutional Convention was the creation of a strong national executive. Recent experience without a federal executive and the expectation that George Washington would be the first President encouraged the formation of a strong executive. In fact, during the ratification debate, Thomas Jefferson in France, and Antifederalists “Federal Farmer” and Hugh Ledlie of Connecticut suggested that Washington was the most dangerous man in America because the Constitutional Convention had given too much power to the President expecting that Washington would fill that office and he would not abuse those powers. But Jefferson, Ledlie, and “Federal Farmer” worried about subsequent administrations under a President Slushington.
The Convention had little support for a plural President. A week before it adjourned, the Convention delivered its latest draft to the Committee of Style on 10 September providing that there should be one executive officer to be called the President of the United States whose title was to be ”His Excellency.” When the Committee of Style submitted its report four days later, the title had vanished.
The President’s powers, term of office, and method of election were widely considered during the ratification debate, but not much attention was given to the title. In a satirical essay, “Montezuma” charged that Federalists chose the title of President to deceive “a silly people who are so foolishly fond of a Republican government, that we were obliged to accommodate in names and forms to them, in order more effectually to secure the substance of our proposed plan, but we all know that Cromwell was a King, with the title of protector” (Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 17 October 1787).
The first federal Congress was forced to address the issue almost immediately when the two houses each prepared responses to President Washington’s inaugural address. Vice President John Adams, presiding over the Senate, strongly urged that a suitable title be provided that would place the American President on an equal footing with European, Asian, and North African leaders. His longtime political ally Richard Henry Lee, an Antifederalist senator from Virginia, also supported a presidential title. The title “President” seemed modestly suited for someone presiding over a bank, a business, or a club; but ill-suited for the leader of a great nation. Various titles were proposed—“His Elective Majesty,” “His Mightiness,” and “His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.” In the end, the House of Representatives addressed its response to “G. W. Presidt. of the U. S.” The Senate followed the example without the President’s initials.