Why President? How The U.S. Named Its Leader

Feb 15, 2016
Originally published on February 16, 2016 1:52 pm

The Presidents Day holiday got us wondering: Why do we call the leader of our country "president?"

When the founders were writing the Constitution in the 1780s, they had no idea what to call the executive officer. King? Absolutely not. They wanted something that sounded impressive but not all-powerful.

Enter the word "president." It was floating around at the time, but its uses weren't too lofty.

"It comes from 'praesidere,' which literally means 'to sit before,' " says linguist Ben Zimmer, executive editor of Vocabulary.com. "It referred to an officer who would sit before a gathering and would serve as the presiding officer."

At the time, the word was generally used kind of like chairman or foreman, although it was used somewhat in more institutional contexts.

"For instance, the head of a college or university. Oxford and Cambridge had presidents all the way back in the 15th century," Zimmer says. "It was also occasionally used for the heads of colonies, going back to Virginia in 1608. They had a president."

In 1774, the presiding officer of the Continental Congress was also called "president," but it was very much a ceremonial title. So Article Two of the Constitution gave the word "president" a whole new meaning.

"They were charting new terrain here," Zimmer says. "This title really didn't fit perfectly well."

And once George Washington was elected to fill the role, Congress had a bit of a panic about it.

"In April of 1789, Washington was making his way to New York City to be inaugurated, and Congress started to have this discussion about how are we going to address him once he gets here?" says Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon, a historian with the First Federal Congress Project.

The king was "Your Majesty," while governors at the time were addressed as "Your Excellency." What would they call Washington?

"[Washington] had been 'General' and 'Your Excellency' as commander of the Revolutionary forces," Bartoloni-Tuazon says.

President just seemed too plain to the Senate, and they brainstormed a bunch of alternatives.

"Elective majesty, sacred majesty, elective highness, illustrious highness, serene highness," Bartoloni-Tuazon says. "The Senate actually went on record as recommending, 'His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.' Now that's a mouthful."

On the other side, the House was unanimously against anything but president alone. They were afraid that anything more would make the executive leader into a kind of monarch.

The debate went on for three arduous weeks — the original Congressional deadlock.

"You can even consider this the first dispute between the House and the Senate over constitutional intent," Bartoloni-Tuazon says.

In the end, the Senate relented, writing they wished to preserve harmony with the House.

Bartoloni-Tuazon, author of a book about this debate, For Fear of an Elective King, says the simple title of "president" established the first principles of the executive branch of the American political system.

"Those principles — modesty and a nod to the people — helped the presidency be accepted by the people in that unsettled time," she says.

It also served as a model for countries around the world.

"Other republics, when they were creating new governments and deciding what to call their heads of state, very often followed this model that the Americans had of naming a president," Zimmer says. "In Latin America, for instance, Haiti had its own president to be the head of its Presidential Republic in 1807, and other countries around the world also followed suit."

Today, dozens of countries around the world call their head of state the president.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This Presidents' Day holiday got us wondering why the U.S. calls its leader president instead of something else. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Selena Simmons-Duffin looked into this for us and is here in the studio. Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari. So - do you know this? - 'cause you were the White House correspondent.

SHAPIRO: I should know it. I feel embarrassed not to know it. Thanks for calling me out.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, OK.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I'll give you some info. In the 1780s, when founders were writing the Constitution, they didn't know what to call the person in the executive branch.

SHAPIRO: They definitely didn't want to go with king.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Absolutely not. And this word, president, was around at the time. Here's linguist Ben Zimmer from vocabulary.com to drop some Latin on us.

SHAPIRO: All right.

BEN ZIMMER: It comes from praesidere, which literally means to sit before.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So if you preside over a gathering, you are its president. So it's kind of like chairman or foreman. And back then, this word was used a little bit in other contexts.

ZIMMER: For instance, the head of a college or university. Oxford and Cambridge had presidents all the way back in the 15th century. It was also occasionally used for the heads of colonies. Going back to Virginia in 1608, they had a president.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And in 1774, the Continental Congress had a president, but it was totally ceremonial. It wasn't, like, a power kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: So was Article 2 of the Constitution really the first time the leader of a country was called a president?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. And after George Washington was elected to that role, Congress had a little bit of a panic about it. So I'm going to have historian Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon of the First Federal Congress Project pick up the story.

KATHLEEN BARTOLONI-TUAZON: In April of 1789, Washington was making his way to New York City to be inaugurated, and Congress started to have this discussion about how are we going to address him once he gets here?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So king was Your Majesty - right? - and governors were Your Excellency. And Washington was actually Your Excellency when he ran the Revolutionary Army. So president was just blah (ph). The Senate just thought this doesn't seem suitable at all. They brainstormed a bunch of options.

BARTOLONI-TUAZON: Elective, majesty, sacred majesty, elective highness, illustrious highness, serene highness. The Senate actually went on record as recommending His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.

SHAPIRO: That's a mouthful.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Ari, can you imagine that in press conferences at the White House?

SHAPIRO: No, sure can't. I wonder what the acronym for that would be.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: (Laughter) So the House on this issue was unanimously like, absolutely not. It should just be president, nothing more, nothing that would get us anywhere close to a monarch.

SHAPIRO: So the House and Senate deadlocked. Shocker.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. They were deadlocked for three weeks. It was, like, arduous debate back and forth. And finally, the Senate relented. They went with president, and that's what we have today.

SHAPIRO: No more serene protector, huh?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: No, none of that.

SHAPIRO: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.