When the First Congress met in New York City 225 years ago, they faced the immense task of turning the words of the newly ratified Constitution into action. They were aware that what they did and said would set the tone for the new government, and could affect how much people supported it. How they decided to address the President would be of considerable importance, and this issue precipitated a weeks-long dispute between the House of Representatives and the Senate. In question was whether or not the President of the United States should be referred to with a title, as was the practice amongst the aristocracy in England and other European nations.
This debate in Congress can help your students get a sense of how this moment was a turning point for the new nation. Although the Revolutionary War officially ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, many historians argue that it wasn’t until the First Congress put the Constitution into effect that the Revolution really ended. It was at that point that the nation shed many of the remaining vestiges of colonialism and monarchy. The decision on whether or not the President should be called by a title helped to ultimately turn the nation away from monarchical traditions and towards a democratic republic.
Two congressional documents, one from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate, can illustrate this debate for your students. Before sharing them, ask your students a few questions about titles of nobility:
- What is a “title” for a person?
- Who has a title that you’ve heard of?
- How does a title affect your perceptions of a person?
Tell the students that prior to the inauguration of George Washington, the First Congress debated whether or not they should call him by a title of nobility. The House of Representatives thought that there should not be a title for the President. Many members said they believed the idea was dangerous to republicanism and a little ridiculous. Project the image of the Report of the House Select Committee on titles so that students can read the one sentence report: “That it is not proper to annex any style or title to the respective styles or titles of office expressed in the Constitution.”
Project the Senate Report on titles, and direct students to discover the Senate’s recommendation. Ask a student to read aloud the title that the Senate proposed to give the President: “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties.” A majority of senators felt that a title was necessary for the United States to obtain the esteem of foreign nations and to enhance the respectability of the President. Ask students how they feel about this proposed title for the President. How would they feel using this title for a recent or current president? Would such a title make them think or feel differently about the President? How?
The Senate ultimately agreed with the House to forego a title, but they did so very reluctantly, as students can see in the resolution passed by the Senate. The resolution clearly stated the Senate’s belief that a presidential title would be beneficial to the nation, but that they would let it go and follow the lead of the House for the purpose of “preserving harmony.”
In a nation founded on the idea expressed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” Congress ultimately decided that this applied to the President, too. Calling the President “His Highness” would have elevated that position above the citizens he represented. This idea proved to be in opposition to the egalitarian republican ethos that was cementing in the First Congress. The debate in Congress over a title for the President indicated the direction that the new government would take—towards a government of the people and by the people.
The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th Anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents from this formative time via Tumblr, Twitter, and Education Updates blogs. Follow #Congress225 for more documents you can use in your classroom.