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Why 'president'? How the U.S. named its leader

George Washington delivers his inaugural address in April 1789 after being sworn as president, not king, in a break from the country's royal roots.
Library of Congress
George Washington delivers his inaugural address in April 1789 after being sworn as president, not king, in a break from the country's royal roots.

Updated February 21, 2022 at 12:16 PM ET

Editor's note: This story, including the audio above, originally published in 2016.

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,' " linguist Ben Zimmer told NPR in 2016. "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 said. "It was also occasionally used for the heads of colonies, going back to Virginia in 1608. They had a president."

Congress wasn't sure how to address George Washington

In 1774, the presiding officer of the Continental Congress was also called "president," but it was very much a ceremonial title. So Article 2 of the Constitution gave the word "president" a whole new meaning.

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

Once George Washington was elected to fill the role, Congress had a bit of a panic about what to call him.

George Washington (center), commander of the American forces during the American Revolutionary War, and British Gen. Charles Cornwallis are depicted in 1781.
Three Lions / Getty Images
Getty Images
George Washington, commander of the American forces during the American Revolutionary War, is depicted as meeting British Gen. Charles Cornwallis in 1781 after American victory at the Yorktown, which essentially ended the war.

"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?" said author and historian Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon.

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 said.

"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 said. "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 said.

In the end, modesty won

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, said 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 said.

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 said. "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 call their head of state the president.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
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