‘For Fear of an Elective King,’ the topic of this year’s George Washington Lecture, examines presidential title controversy of 1789.
By James Irwin
When she enrolled at the George Washington University as a doctoral student, Kathleen (Kata) Bartoloni-Tuazon thought she would write her dissertation on environmental history.
It seemed like the perfect marriage of her interests and experience. She had spent nearly 20 years in environmental management and held master's degrees in ecosystems science and policy and city planning from the University of California-Berkeley. She had a keen interest in early American history and planned to study that period.
“I thought that I was going to do something on the western lands in George Washington’s administration,” said Dr. Bartoloni-Tuazon, MPhil. ’06, Ph.D. ’10. “I wasn’t originally interested in political history.”
Return to Mount Vernon
When: Monday, Feb. 22, 12-4:30 p.m.
Where: Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington Lecture
When: Monday, Feb. 22, 6-7 p.m.
Where: The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum
A fortuitous series of events led her in a different direction. First, she linked up with the First Federal Congress Project, a GW research center affiliated with the history department. She also began reading about Washington—America’s trusted leader, the savior of the revolution, the man who would not be king—and wondering if popular history had omitted a few details.
“I thought the story had to be more complicated than that,” she said. “And I mentioned this to the people at the Congress project one day. They said, ‘You know, we have all this information about the presidential title controversy in the first months of his administration, and nobody’s ever looked at it.’”
That piqued her curiosity.
“The light went off,” Dr. Bartoloni-Tuazon said. “Here’s an archive of a vast amount of information that’s never been explored on a topic that could be something I would be very interested in. And the more I learned about the title controversy, the more it became a way to look at all these other issues as well—the popular culture and popular attitudes of the time.”
She researched the topic extensively and eventually selected it for her dissertation. In 2014, she published a book, “For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789.”
The discussion comes at an appropriate time, said Denver Brunsman, associate professor of history in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
“When we were thinking about what would be an exciting lecture this year, we instantly thought about the 2016 presidential election,” he said. “How could we reflect on Washington’s experience as president and his influence on the office? Kata’s book fit perfectly. We feel its legacy in what we call the president, and more than that, in how we treat the office. It’s less than a monarchy by design, but it’s more than the governorships that existed at the time.”
In her book, Dr. Bartoloni-Tuazon—a frequent guest lecturer in Dr. Brunsman’s class, George Washington and His World—investigates the congressional debate over whether to add a regal prologue (“his excellency,” for example) to the title “president of the United States.” The discussion played out in April and May of 1789 between the pro-title Senate, led by Vice President John Adams, and the House of Representatives, led by its de facto leader James Madison. The book also highlights the ensuing public debate that spilled into the streets and newspapers of the fledgling country.
“This argument was a continuation of the arguments they had during ratification [of the Constitution],” Dr. Bartoloni-Tuazon said. “What should we call the president? Should we give him a regal title, like highness or majesty, or should we just call him ‘president of the United States,’ which is mentioned in the Constitution? And all summer long the newspapers debated it—people for and against the title.”
It is one of the great hidden-in-plain-sight moments of Washington’s presidency, she and Dr. Brunsman said.
“One accomplishment of Kata’s book is she shows what a public controversy this was,” Dr. Brunsman said. “Previous scholars knew this was something Congress debated, but I really think they underestimated the importance. It went right at the heart of what the American Revolution meant: How was this new American system going to be different from European monarchies?”