It’s no secret that when someone creates something new, they often have trouble deciding what to call it. Twitter was almost Jitter, Pretty Woman was almost “3000,” and Scarlett O’Hara was almost named Pansy. (These are the names of things you never knew had names.) Being creative is hard, and deciding what to call things is even harder. The Founding Fathers struggled with this too.
After unanimously electing George Washington president in 1789, members of Congress faced a new challenge: deciding how to address him. Other countries offered little precedent; none had ever elected a president before. Washington had already gone by “Your Excellency” and “General” during the Revolutionary War, but leading an army and leading a country were different, and Congress thought this new title should reflect that.
So, like any high-functioning group, they started pitching.
“Your Highness” and “Your Most Benign Highness” were two of the first suggestions, writes historian Harlow Giles Unger. Those came from vice-president John Adams, who took a cue from the European courts of the day. A senator with similar inspiration pitched “His Majesty the President.”
Two senators argued between “His Exalted Highness” and “His Elected Highness.” This was, after all, a democracy. Then Adams had another idea: “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of the Rights of the Same,” which incorporated bits of each but was ultimately, you guessed it, too long.
After consulting the Constitution, one congressman reminded his colleagues it prohibited titles. The group decided that calling their beloved leader “George” would be unacceptable. Instead, they landed on the title “Mr. President.”
It was short, sweet, and to the point, but most of all, it stuck. Thanks, Mr. Congressman!