NPR in Atlanta recently ran a segment that discussed the legislative turmoil surrounding the question of what to call the first leader of the United States. The Senate wanted a title with the appropriate gravitas that would command respect on the world stage. The House on the other hand shunned grand titles. Grand titles went to men’s heads and many feared it would be only a matter of time before America traded a foreign tyrant for a local one. It wasn’t as much Washington that the House feared, but his predecessor. It was unrealistic to assume that future leaders of America would deal with power as effectively as Washington and a grand title may give a weak willed leader enough wiggle room to assume powers unintended by the Founders. Title or not, this debate continues to this day, but the title of President is an issue that time has seemingly settled.
HBO’s series John Adams also addresses this debate in a segment that paints the second President of the United States in a somewhat undistinguished light. As the Vice President, Adams fumbles through lofty titles that eventually earn him the title of “His Rotundity” by detractors who accuse him of being swayed by his years in Europe. HBO somewhat unfairly paints Adams as a solitary figure obsessing over a non issue, but in fact the issue was hotly debated at the time and apparently never officially settled. The Senate agreed to temporarily allow the lowly title of “President” until clearer heads could prevail. At an undocumented future date, they would revisit the subject and agree on a more distinguished title.
The proverbial can was kicked down the road and left for history and perception to shape. Before they knew it, a term used in Cricket leagues and other gentlemen’s clubs began to evolve into something much more substantial. Today we find hundreds of countries with Presidents across the globe, as these countries adopt this title in an attempt to capture a little of the weight it carries with it.
One is left wondering how much language shapes reality and vice versa. Sociologists and scientists are still studying this issue today. How does language shape consciousness? What are the evolutionary benefits of language? Or even more profoundly, what if Benjamin Franklin had his way and the Turkey became the national bird of America? Would this bird would take on some of the noble qualities Franklin attributed to it? One is left wondering. Or maybe just a little hungry perhaps…