Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington
Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington

The framers of the United States Constitution explicitly forbade the United States from granting titles of nobility in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, also known as the Title of Nobility Clause. Hence, shortly after winning independence, when it came time to decide how to refer to their leader George Washington, there was considerable controversy.

Senators desired a title that would endow George Washington with prestige when signing treaties and meeting foreign dignitaries. The Senate contemplated such options as “King Washington”, “His Elective Majesty Washington”, “Chief Magistrate Washington”, and “His Highness Washington.” The House of Representatives, on the other hand, rejected such pretentious titles as ill-suited for the “the nature of our Government.” They desired a simple title to curtail the ego of the republic’s leader.

Following weeks of argument, the Senate finally accepted the House’s tentative suggestion of “President,” a decidedly undistinguished term which theretofore referred to someone who presided over meetings like the foreman in a jury or a moderator in a debate. The Senate made it clear that they objected to the title and agreed only as a temporary measure. They intended to re-open the discussion when time permitted.

Today over 140 countries refer to their chief executive as “President.” As of 2016, 226 years after the debate, the US Senate has still not formally endorsed the title.