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For Fear of an Elective KingFor Fear of an Elective King

George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789

Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon and Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon

Choice 2015 Outstanding Academic Title

Narrated by Pamela Wolken

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

In the spring of 1789, within weeks of the establishment of the new federal government based on the U.S. Constitution, the Senate and House of Representatives fell into dispute regarding how to address the president. Congress, the press, and individuals debated more than thirty titles, many of which had royal associations and some of which were clearly monarchical. For Fear of an Elective King is Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon's rich account of the title controversy and its meanings.The short, intense legislative phase and the prolonged, equally intense public phase animated and shaped the new nation's broadening political community. Rather than simply reflecting an obsession with etiquette, the question challenged Americans to find an acceptable balance between power and the people's sovereignty while assuring the country’s place in the Atlantic world. Bartoloni-Tuazon argues that the resolution of the controversy in favor of the modest title of "President" established the importance of recognition of the people's views by the president and evidence of modesty in the presidency, an approach to leadership that fledged the presidency’s power by not flaunting it.How the country titled the president reflected the views of everyday people, as well as the recognition by social and political elites of the irony that authority rested with acquiescence to egalitarian principles. The controversy’s outcome affirmed the republican character of the country’s new president and government, even as the conflict was the opening volley in increasingly partisan struggles over executive power. As such, the dispute is as relevant today as in 1789.

Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon is Visiting Scholar at the First Federal Congress Project in Washington, D.C.

Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon is Visiting Scholar at the First Federal Congress Project in Washington, D.C.


“This book is tremendously rich in its historical account of the title controversy and in showing the dynamics of that controversy in a new and interesting way. The author reveals that a controversy that had previously seemed like nothing more than an odd 'sideshow' is actually illustrative of a fundamental shift inthe republican character of the country. She also demonstrates that the controversy played a decisive role in republicanizing the Constitution and, by doing so, making the Constitution stronger.”

American Historical Review

“This is a first-rate scholarly work. The text supports the fact that the author has diligently researched the use of titles within the US during this period. Her research is also responsible for her deep knowledge of the national debate over a presidential title. Helpful to scholars and advanced students will be the 56 pages of notes and the 16-page bibliography. A mandatory acquisition for four-year institutions and major public libraries. Summing Up: Essential.”


“Bartoloni-Tuazon's well-crafted book investigates popular conceptions of the presidency. It examines the controversy surrounding John Adams’s attempt to grant Washington an official title at the opening of the first session of Congress. In this, Bartoloni-Tuazon understands the Senate’s attempt to grant the president the title 'His Highness the President of the United States of America' as a key problem of post-Revolutionary political culture and not as a frivolous diversion that distracted from the real problems of governing the new republic.”

Reviews in American History

“Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon has written a small but ambitious work on the presidential title debate that occupied the new Congress in May 1789. She offers a meticulously researched and well-written study of the controversy.”

Journal of American History

“This is an outstanding work of historical writing. All of Bartoloni-Tuazon's assertions are strongly backed up with historical evidence. The book is thoroughly researched (with fifty-five pages of notes), and includes a very useful bibliography. In sum, this book is a balanced and thorough examination of an important episode in American history. The title controversy decided that America—at least until the twentieth century—would have a presidency of moderation with a lack of pageantry.”

Journal of the American Revolution

“Throughout, Bartoloni-Tuazon's deployment of well-chosen quotations render sthe dispute, in all its iterations, freshly vivid.... Bartoloni-Tuazon absolutely demonstrates the importance of the titles controversy to the early development of the US presidency and to our understanding of contemporary American political sensibilities. She also, not always the case with deeply researched work, tells a thoroughly good story.”

American Studies

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