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Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle, ed. and with a Preface by Lance Banning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).
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As Madison remarked in a letter to his father, the members of the First Federal Congress were “in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” Everything was new, and every action likely to establish precedents for all the Congresses to come. Hardly had its serious business begun before the legislature had to pause to settle the first disagreement between its two houses. As Madison reported to Jefferson, the House of Representatives, in its reply to Washington’s inaugural address, had included no “degrading appendages of Excellency, Esquire,” or the like. But on 9 May, a committee of the Senate, where the matter had preoccupied the members for a week, recommended that the president should be addressed as His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties. The reaction in the House, together with letters by Madison and Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames, are among the finest sources for an understanding of the temperament in which much of the session’s business was conducted.
Proceedings in the House of Representatives 11 May 1789
Josiah Parker (Va.) moved to disagree with the Senate and insist, as the House had already done implicitly in its reply to the inaugural address, “That it is not proper to annex any style or title” to the constitutional titles of federal officials.
John Page (Va.)
seconded the motion, observing that in his opinion the House had no right to interfere in the business; the Constitution expressly prescribed the power of Congress as to bestowing titles. He did not conceive the real honor or dignity of either of those situations to consist in high sounding titles. The House had, on a former occasion, expressed their disapprobation of any title being annexed to their own members, and very justly too. After having soulfully and explicitly declared their sentiments against such measures, he thought it behooved them to be explicit with the Senate. Indeed, he felt himself a good deal hurt that gentlemen on this floor, after having refused their permission to the clerk to enter any more than their plain names on the journal, should be standing up and addressing one another by the title of “the honorable gentleman.” He wished the practice could be got over, because it added neither to the honor nor dignity of the House.
Richard Bland Lee (Va.)
approved of the appointment of a committee to confer with a committee of the Senate, as the mode due to the occasion, but he was against adding any title.
Thomas Tudor Tucker (S.C.)
When this business was first brought before the House, I objected to the appointment of a committee to confer with a committee of the Senate; because I thought it a subject which this House had no right to take into consideration. I then stood single and unsupported in my opinion, but have had the pleasure to find since that some gentlemen on this floor agree that I was right. If I was then right, I shall, from stronger reasoning, be right now in opposing the appointment of another committee on the same subject. The joint committee reported that no titles ought to be given; we agreed to the report, and I was in hopes we should have heard no more of the matter. The Senate rejected the report and have now sent us a resolution expressive of a determination to give a title, to which they desire our concurrence. I am still of opinion, that we were wrong in appointing the first committee and think that we shall be guilty of greater impropriety if we now appoint another. What, sir, is the intention of this business? will it not alarm our fellow-citizens? will it not give them just cause of alarm? will they not say that they have been deceived by the Convention that framed the Constitution? that it has been contrived with a view to lead them on by degrees to that kind of government which they have thrown off with abhorrence? Shall we not justify the fears of those who were opposed to the Constitution, because they considered it as insidious and hostile to the liberties of the people? One of its warmest advocates, one of the framers of it (Mr. Wilson of Pennsylvania), has recommended it by calling it a pure democracy. Does this look like a democracy, when one of the first acts of the two branches of the Legislature is to confer titles? surely not. To give dignity to our government we must give a lofty title to our chief magistrate. Does the dignity of a nation consist in the distance betwixt the first magistrate and his citizens? does it consist in the exaltation of one man and the humiliation of the rest? if so, the most despotic government is the most dignified; and to make our dignity complete we must give a high title, an embroidered robe, a princely equipage, and finally a crown and hereditary succession. Let us, Sir, establish tranquility and good order at home and wealth, strength, and national dignity will be the infallible result. The aggregate of dignity will be the same, whether it be divided amongst all or centered in one. And whom, Sir, do we mean to gratify? Is it our present President? Certainly, if we expect to please him we shall be greatly disappointed. He has a real dignity of character and is above such little vanities. We shall give him infinite pain; we shall do him an essential injury; we shall place him in a most delicate and disagreeable situation; we shall reduce him to the necessity of evincing to the world his disapprobation of our measures or of risking some diminution of that high reputation for disinterested patriotism which he has so justly acquired. If it is not for his gratification, for whose then are we to do this? Where is the man amongst us who has the presumption and vanity to expect it? Who is it that shall say: for my aggrandizement three millions of people have entered into a calamitous war, they have persevered in it for eight long years, they have sacrificed their property, they have spilt their blood, they have rendered thousands of families wretched by the loss of their only protectors and means of support? This spirit of imitation, Sir, this spirit of mimicry and apery will be the ruin of our country. Instead of giving us dignity in the eyes of foreigners, it will expose us to be laughed at as apes. They gave us credit for our exertions in effecting the Revolution, but they will say that we want independence of spirit to render it a blessing to us. I hope, sir, that we shall not appoint a committee. I thought it improper before, and I still think that we cannot be justified in doing it.
Jonathan Trumbell, Jr. (Conn.)
moved for the appointment of a committee of conference to consider on the difference which appeared in the votes of the two houses upon the report of the joint committee.
Aedanus Burke (S.C.)
hoped the House would express their decided disapprobation of bestowing titles in any shape whatever; it would be an indignity in the House to countenance any measures of this nature. Perhaps some gentlemen might think the subject was a matter of indifference, but it did not appear to him in that light; the introduction of two words which he could mention into the title of these officers would alter the Constitution itself; but he would forbear to say anything farther, as he had a well grounded expectation that the House would take no further notice of the business… .
I may be well disposed to concur in opinion with gentlemen that we ought not to recede from our former vote on this subject, yet at the same time I may wish to proceed with due respect to the Senate, and give dignity and weight to our own opinion so far as it contradicts theirs by the deliberate and decent manner in which we decide. For my part, Mr. Speaker, I do not conceive titles to be so pregnant with danger as some gentlemen apprehend. I believe a President of the United States clothed with all the powers given in the Constitution would not be a dangerous person to the liberties of America if you were to load him with all the titles of Europe or Asia. We have seen superb and august titles given without conferring power and influence or without even obtaining respect; one of the most impotent sovereigns in Europe has assumed a title as high as human invention can devise; for example, what words can imply a greater magnitude of power and strength than that of high mightiness; this title seems to border almost upon impiety; it is assuming the pre-eminence and omnipotency of the deity; yet this title and many others cast in the same mold have obtained a long time in Europe, but have they conferred power? Does experience sanctify such opinion? Look at the republic I have alluded to and say if their present state warrants the idea.
I am not afraid of titles because I fear the danger of any power they could confer, but I am against them because they are not very reconcilable with the nature of our government or the genius of the people; even if they were proper in themselves, they are not so at this juncture of time. But my strongest objection is founded in principle; instead of increasing they diminish the true dignity and importance of a republic, and would in particular, on this occasion, diminish the true dignity of the first magistrate himself. If we give titles, we must either borrow or invent them—if we have recourse to the fertile fields of luxuriant fancy and deck out an airy being of our own creation, it is a great chance but its fantastic properties renders the empty fanthom ridiculous and absurd. If we borrow, the servile imitation will be odious, not to say ridiculous also—we must copy from the pompous sovereigns of the East or follow the inferior potentates of Europe; in either case, the splendid tinsel or gorgeous robe would disgrace the manly shoulders of our Chief. The more truly honorable shall we be, by showing a total neglect and disregard to things of this nature; the more simple, the more republican we are in our manners, the more rational dignity we acquire; therefore I am better pleased with the report adopted by the House, than I should have been with any other whatsoever.
The Senate, no doubt, entertain different sentiments on this subject. I would wish therefore to treat their opinion with respect and attention, I would desire to justify the reasonable and republican decision of this house to the other branch of Congress, in order to prevent a misunderstanding. But that the motion of my worthy colleague (Mr. Parker) has possession of the house, I would move a more temperate proposition, and I think it deserves some pains to bring about that good will and urbanity which, for the dispatch of public business, ought to be kept up between the two houses. I do not think it would be a sacrifice of dignity to appoint a committee of conference, but imagine it would tend to cement that harmony which has hitherto been preserved between the Senate and this House—therefore, while I concur with the gentlemen who express in such decided terms their disapprobation of bestowing titles, I concur also with those who are for the appointment of a committee of conference, not apprehending they will depart from the principles adopted and acted upon by the House… .
Josiah Parker (Va.)
wanted to know what was the object of gentlemen in the appointment of a committee of conference. The committee could only say that the House had refused their consent to annexing any titles whatever to the President and Vice President; for certainly the committee would not descend into the merits of a question already established by the House. For his part he could not see what purpose was to be answered by the appointment of such a committee. He wished to have done with the subject, because while it remained a question in the House, the people’s minds would be much agitated; it was impossible that a true republican spirit could remain unconcerned when a principle was under consideration so repugnant to the principles of equal liberty.
thought it was pretty plain that the House could not comply with the proposition of the Senate. The appointment of a committee on the part of the House to consider and determine what stile or titles will be proper to annex to the President and Vice-President would imply that the House meant that some stile or title should be given; now this, they never could intend, because they have decided that no stile or title ought to be given—it will be sufficient to adduce this reason for not complying with the request of the Senate.
wondered what title the Senate had in contemplation to add dignity or luster to the person that filled the presidential Chair. For his part he could conceive none. Would it add to his fame to be called after the petty and insignificant princes of Europe? Would styling him his Serene Highness, His Grace, or Mightiness add one tittle to the solid properties he possessed? He thought it would not; and therefore conceived the proposition to be trifling with the dignity of the government. As a difference had taken place between the two Houses, he had no objection to a conference taking place, he hoped it might be productive of good consequences and the Senate be induced to follow the laudable example of the House.
was of opinion that the House might appoint a committee of conference without being supposed to countenance the measure. The standing rule of the House declared that, in case of disagreeing votes, a committee of conference should be appointed; now, the case provided for in the rule had actually happened, he inferred that it was proper to proceed in the manner directed by the rules of the House; the subject was still open to discussion, but there was little probability that the House would rescind their adoption of the report. I presume gentlemen do not intend to compel the Senate into their measures; they should recollect that the Senate stand upon independent ground and will do nothing but what they are convinced of the propriety of; it would be better, therefore, to treat them with delicacy and offer some reasons to induce them to come into our measure. He expected this would be the result of a conference and therefore was in favor of such a motion… .
George Clymer (Pa.)
thought there was little occasion to add any title to either the President or Vice-President. He was very well convinced by experience that titles did not confer power; on the contrary, they frequently made their possessors ridiculous. The most impotent potentates, the most insignificant powers, generally assumed the highest and most lofty titles. That they do not indicate power and prerogative is very observable in the English history; for when the chief magistrate of that nation wore the simple stile of his Grace or Highness, his prerogatives were much more extensive than since he has become His Most Sacred Majesty.
Titular distinctions are said to be unpopular in the United States, yet a person would be led to think otherwise from the vast number of honorable gentlemen we have in America. As soon as a man is selected for the public service, his fellow citizens with liberal hand shower down titles on him—either excellency or honorable. He would venture to affirm there were more honorable esquires in the United States than all the world beside. He wished to check a propensity so notoriously evidenced in favor of distinctions, and hoped the example of the House might prevail to extinguish what predilection that appeared in favor of titles.
… I must tell gentlemen I differ from them when they think titles can do no harm. Titles I say, Sir, may do harm and have done harm. If we contend now for a right to confer titles, I apprehend the time will come when we shall form a reservoir for honor and make our President the fountain of it; in such case, may not titles do an injury to the union? They have been the occasion of an eternal faction in the kingdom we were formerly connected with, and may beget like inquietude in America; for, I contend, if you give the title, you must follow it with the robe and the diadem, and then the principles of your government are subverted.
Richard Bland Lee (Va.)
moved the previous question, as the best mode of getting rid of the motion before the House. He was supported by a sufficient number. And on the question, Shall the main question be now put? it passed in the negative; and so the motion was lost.
On motion, it was resolved, that a committee be appointed to join with such committee as the Senate may appoint to confer on the disagreeing votes of the two Houses upon the report of their joint committee, appointed to consider what titles shall be given to the President and Vice President of the United States, if any other than those given in the Constitution. Messrs. Madison, Page, Benson, Trumbull, and Sherman were the committee elected.
Fisher Ames to George Richards Minot 14 May 1789
… It is not easy to write the transactions of the House, because I forget the topics which do not reach you by the newspaper. A committee of both Houses had reported that it is not proper to address the President by any other title than that in the Constitution. The House agreed to the report without debate. But the Senate rejected it and notified the House that they had nonconcurred. The House was soon in a ferment. The antispeakers edified all aristocratic hearts by their zeal against titles. They were not warranted by the Constitution; repugnant to republican principles; dangerous, vain, ridiculous, arrogant, and damnable. Not a soul said a word for titles. But the zeal of these folks could not have risen higher in case of contradiction. Whether the arguments were addressed to the galleries or intended to hurry the House to a resolve censuring the Senate, so as to set the two Houses at odds, and to nettle the Senate to bestow a title in their address, is not clear. The latter was supposed, and a great majority agreed to appoint a committee of conference. The business will end here. Prudence will restrain the Senate from doing anything at present, and they will call him President, etc., simply.
James Madison to Thomas Jefferson 23 May 1789
… My last enclosed copies of the President’s inauguration speech and the answer of the House of Representatives. I now add the answer of the Senate. It will not have escaped you that the former was addressed with a truly republican simplicity to G. W., President of the U.S. The latter follows the example, with the omission of the personal name but without any other than the constitutional title. The proceeding on this point was in the House of Representatives spontaneous. The imitation by the Senate was extorted. The question became a serious one between the two houses. J. Adams espoused the cause of titles with great earnestness. His friend R. H. Lee, altho elected as a republican enemy to an aristocratic constitution, was a most zealous second. The projected title was—His Highness the President of the U.S. and protector of their liberties. Had the project succeeded it would have subjected the President to a severe dilemma and given a deep wound to our infant government.
The Leadership Divides
In all of American history, no Congress has accomplished quite so much, so very well, as the first one did in 1789. It framed the Bill of Rights. It passed an impost act, assuring the new government a steady source of revenues from duties on imports of foreign goods. It filled the Constitution’s parchment outline of a working federal government with the Judiciary Act of 1789, establishing a system of federal courts, and legislation creating four executive departments. It confirmed the president’s superb appointments to the new executive positions: Thomas Jefferson at State, Alexander Hamilton at the Treasury, Henry Knox at the War Department, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General.
Funding and Assumption