Has the U.S. Presidency Become an Elective Kingship?

President Joe Biden

Has the U.S. Presidency Become an Elective Kingship?

Voting for president has become a scary proposition. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on presidential immunity has turned the people’s choice of chief executive into a type of collusion with arbitrary power.


In 2014, when my book, For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and Presidential Title Controversy of 1789, was published, the term “elective king” when referring to the president did not roll easily off the tongue. The term emerged during the ratification of the Constitution from writings of a group of Constitutional critics who called themselves “An Old Whig” and feared that the president would become a king “and a king of the worst kind—an elective King.” Ten years ago, fears of the presidency morphing into a form of elective kingship seemed more steeped in history than the present. Now, with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling granting absolute immunity to all “official acts” of the presidency, it appears alarmingly prescient.

The irony of the presidential immunity decision coming out just before Independence Day could not be avoided, as laudatory remarks about our nation’s founding on a rebellion against King George III and the democratic republic that evolved were everywhere in the days following the ruling. And yet, not even the English king was above the law. Although kings in other nations ruled solely by divine and hereditary right, in England, the king was considered a mortal and subject to standards of conduct upheld by Parliament. Because of the Supreme Court’s utterly new and arguably unfounded interpretation of presidential authority, the American president can no longer be held to a clear legal standard of conduct or decency; high crimes and misdemeanors must now be viewed differently when applied to the American president.


The temptation to place the presidency on a monarchical pedestal is not new. In 1789, even before George Washington became the country’s first president under the untried Constitution, murmurs of giving him a regal title, like some version of “His Majesty” or “His Highness,” circulated in New York City (the nation’s first capital) and elsewhere. 

Almost immediately after Washington’s inauguration, Congress became embroiled in a controversy about what to call the president in its first debate over constitutional intent. The Senate wanted to grant the president a regal title, while the House was adamant that the unadorned address of “President” was more than enough. Most Americans feared monarchy and the corruption that could come with it. Yet only six years after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, the new government featured a central executive for whom some contemplated grand titles. No wonder “An Old Whig” and many others were worried!

This fight over presidential titles was hardly frivolous. The controversy explored an important constitutional question: to what extent should the head of a republic resemble a monarch, especially since the revolution aimed at weakening the executive? American revulsion of monarchy found its expression in the pitifully weak executives outlined in the new state constitutions, executives whose power often was limited to executing the will of the legislature. During the presidential title controversy, Congress, the press, and individuals argued over more than thirty titles, most with royal overtones. In a world full of monarchs and a new nation struggling for international respect, the eventual resolution in favor of the modest title of “President of the United States,” without any exalted addition, remained far from certain.

Although George Washington was the electors’ unanimous choice as the first president, his transcendent popularity was both a blessing and a curse for the new presidency. Washington was by far the most famous and trusted political personality of his time (and perhaps any time). He commanded respect for the young nation, and the trust he engendered helped soothe fears about the new presidency. So, some argued, anything less than a regal title would be an insult. However, most Americans realized that Washington did not need a grand title to command respect as president. In addition, they were certain that he would disdain royal titles (and, in fact, he did not favor them). Vice-president John Adams and many in the Senate thought that future presidents without Washington’s stature might suffer without a regal title to fortify their authority. Still, the House and a solid majority of Americans rejected those fears and sniffed at any monarchical pretensions.

What then to think of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that places the American president on an elevated plain where some actions are considered above the law? Voting for president has become a scary proposition; the ruling transforms the people’s choice almost into a type of collusion with arbitrary power. Can America still call itself a democratic republic if our president now resembles an elective king?

About the Author: 

Dr. Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon is a historian and the author of For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789 (Cornell, 2014). She was the visiting scholar at the First Federal Congress Project in Washington, DC, and she has been interviewed by NPR and other outlets. She is a contributor to the upcoming anthology Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College, 2nd ed. (Grand Forks, ND: The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, 2024).

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