Is the President of the United States really the King of America?

One of the greatest fears of radical revolutionaries in America was the threat of monarchy emerging out of the nascent republic. But, whilst clearly not establishing a monarchy in the traditional sense, America’s founding fathers were influenced by the stability of government in the European monarchies. Did they create a non-hereditary and elected King of America?

The crown of a new nation was really his for the taking. Had George Washington wanted to establish a new monarchy in the New World, it is likely he would have been able to overturn radical objection and tilt the framers of the constitution into adopting a very different document.

That said, how different would a more royal constitution really have been? As the Commander in Chief, head of state and head of the executive, the President of the United States had already accrued more powers than those held by the recently deposed George III. Whilst never getting close to the absolute monarch of continental Europe, newly free and ‘republican’ America had distinctly royal overtones to its adopted system of government.

This was controversial – the framers of the constitution divided between different groups according to the fears they sought to overcome. Radicals urged greater power to the people, fearing an oligarchy of rich planters and merchants. Republicans urged greater checks and balances and a more powerful Senate to remove any taint of monarchy. Federalists, on the other hand, feared a powerful Senate could fuel the emergence of a domestic aristocracy and urged greater powers in the hands of the President.

Benjamin Franklin expressed this in the Constitutional Convention:

“It sometimes relieves them from Aristocratic domination. They had rather have one tyrant than five hundred. It gives more of the appearance of equality among Citizens, and that they like. I am apprehensive therefore, perhaps too apprehensive, that the Government of these States, may in future times, end in a Monarchy.”

With a powerful President, what seemed to emerge was an “Aristo-Democratical Monarchy”, as suggested by John Adams in a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1790.

The President would have to maintain a careful balance between maintaining the dignity of the office and appearing to regal in his bearing. A taste of the difficulties posed by the new position emerges as the new republic debated titles and forms of address for the leader.

Had the debate gone differently, we could now   see the President addressed as His Excellency, his Most Serene Highness (as favoured by Thomas McKean, the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania), his Most Benign Highness (as suggested by Adams), the rather convoluted His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same (as put forward in a committee of the Senate established to devise proper titles), His Elective Majesty (suggested by James Madison), His Mightiness or, as favoured by Washington himself, His High Mightiness. This latter title may seem slightly odd with today’s phrase of ‘high and mighty’ in mind, but it was the title of the Dutch Stadtholder and so came with something of a republican pedigree.

Unfortunately for later generations of satirists, the simple and obvious won out and the head of the executive branch would simply be called the President of the United States and addressed as Mr President. But royal overtones and majestic bearing were not completely abandoned.

Hamilton urged Washington to indulge in the forms of European monarchial courts whilst Adams wanted the President to bask in a display of “splendor and majesty“. Washington apparently agreed with these federalist thinkers and established a courtly system that featured parades, artillery salutes, levées and tours of the country that republicans could decry as akin to royal progresses. Washington’s speech to the Senate was even given the distinctly royal title of his Most Gracious Speech.

John Adams was particularly singled out for criticism from the radicals and republicans and “was often criticised for his princely style. His love of decorum led his enemies to conclude ‘that he sought a hereditary monarch, with himself as king and son John Quincy groomed as his dauphin”. John Quincy Adams would eventually become the President of the United States, but failed to secure re-election to a second term let alone establish a dynasty.

For more on this, see The American Monarchy by Frank Prochaska published in History Today