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How 'His Highness' George Washington Became 'Mr. President'

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On February 22, 1789, George Washington turned 57, knowing he had won a unanimous election as his nation's first president -- indeed, the first popularly elected president in world history. His election, however, presented him and the rest of the nation with an unexpected problem. He was to take his oath of office before the First Congress in, but 10 weeks -- on April 30, 1789 -- and no one knew what to call him.

During the Revolutionary War, Americans called him "Your Excellency" or, more simply, "General," in keeping with customs the world over. But there were no precedents for addressing an elected president. No other nation had ever elected a president.

President Adams had been infatuated by the pomp of European courts he had visited as an American minister during the Revolutionary War, and he suggested addressing Washington as "Your Highness" or "Your Most Benign Highness." Members of the Senate responded with long, pompous arguments deploring Adams's suggestions as either too frothy or not frothy enough.

One senator suggested calling Washington "His Exalted Highness." Another scoffed at the suggestion as too aristocratic and insisted that "His Elective Highness" was far more appropriate. With that, the Senate debate fell into disorder.

"Most Illustrious and Excellent President," shouted one Senator.

"His Majesty the President!" another called out.

Fed up with the arguing, a third senator barked, "Why not call him George IV?"

Other senators were less oblique, stating that the President was neither a king nor an emperor and entitled to no title but "George." Vice President Adams urged the Senate and House to name a special committee to resolve differences. He warned that the United States would earn "the contempt, the scorn and the derision" of Europe's monarchies if Congress failed to emphasize the importance of the Presidency. Adams then proposed calling Washington, "His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of the Rights of the Same."

After a few more days of debate, one congressman re-examined the Constitution and reminded his colleagues that it prohibited titles. After murmurs of surprise diminished, members finally adopted the Republican simplicity of "Mr. President" -- setting the standard for generations of American presidents to come.

Washington himself was relieved, telling his son-in-law, "Happily the matter is now done with, I hope never to be revived."

Having ended the debate on how to address the President, senators began debating how to address each other and whether any of them were honorable enough to warrant the title of "The Honorable Member," let alone "The Honorable Gentleman." They voted no to both proposals.

The Senate avoided all debate over addressing Vice President Adams. It was common practice to address the presiding officer of any formal body as "Mr. President," although one wag suggested addressing Adams as "His Rotundity."

The Swiftian debate in Congress over titles was, but a prelude to a spate of Congressional incompetence that forced Washington to assume a range of powers -- over foreign affairs, defense, government finances, law enforcement and other functions -- not granted by the Constitution. In doing so, he transformed his office from that of a largely ceremonial post into what modern scholars call "the imperial presidency."

Americans responded to his firm leadership with an outpouring of gratitude and reverence and celebrated Washington's presidency with fireworks and festivities each year on the anniversary of his "birth night" -- February 22. Some 95 percent of Americans lived and worked on farms then, and few could take time from their daylight hours to fete his birthday. Washington's birth night thus became the nation's first national celebration, if not official "holiday."

It would not be until 1879, 90 years after Washington took his oath of office, that Congress would name his birthday a national holiday, along with New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Ninety years after that, Congress knuckled under pressure from commercial interests by passing the Monday Holiday Law of 1968, combining George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthday celebrations into a single "Presidents Day."

Observed on the third Monday in February, Presidents' Day in the modern era provokes more interest in department store bargains for some Americans than in George Washington. For others, however, the holiday remains an opportunity to look back with awe and reverence at George Washington's triumph in creating the nation's highest office.

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Historian Harlow Giles Unger is author of more than 20 books on the Founding Fathers and the early history of the Republic, his latest being "Mr. President": George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office, published by Da Capo Press.