No Country for Old Pretentious Titles
Since the founding of the United States, two competing forces have battled for primacy: precedence and equality.
In May 1789, during the debate over how the leader of the U.S. should be addressed, John Adams advocated a “first among equals” mentality. He campaigned for the American president to be “His highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” Such a lofty title, he argued, was necessary to confer appropriate respect for the chief executive of the nascent country’s federal government—especially important since not all states had yet adopted the Constitution.
“His Excellency,” “His Elective Highness” and “His Majesty George” were also contenders. Yet George Washington was satisfied with the unassuming “Mr. President.”
Thomas Jefferson, author of the country’s “all men are created equal” creed, wrote off Adams’s title campaign as “superlatively ridiculous.” Perhaps Jefferson even had the title campaign in mind when he developed his pêle-mêle etiquette, which set out to eliminate protocol based on title, class or rank. In an 1803 memo to his cabinet, President Jefferson outlined new procedures that would require his guests to check their status at the door.
“When brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office,” he wrote. “No titles being admitted here, those of foreigners give no precedence. Difference of grade among the diplomatic members gives no precedence.” Congressmen, judges, lords, foreign diplomats—all were equal in the Jefferson White House.
The Adams-Jefferson debate persists to this day. In 2009 Sen. Barbara Boxer showed herself to be a modern Adams. During a congressional hearing, she corrected a brigadier general: “You know, do me a favor, could you say ‘Senator’ instead of ‘ma’am’?” She added, “I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it.”
Fortunately, much of America still emulates Jefferson’s skepticism of inordinate deference. Vice President Joe Biden said in 2009, “In Delaware I’ve always been Joe, and everyone calls me that. And I hope they always will.” He’s not the only politician who insists loud demands for deference are laughable and contrary to the American democratic ideal. Yet the longing for priority over others will never be entirely eradicated. This created complications in Jefferson’s time that continue today.
Jefferson, abiding by his pêle-mêle principles, once snubbed the British ambassador to the U.S. and his wife. During a state dinner, the president didn’t prepare a planned seating arrangement. Rather, Jefferson hosted the dinner at a round table—where, unlike at a rectangular table, no one could be distinguished as a guest of honor.
Today visitors to America are often confused and suspicious of the informality—especially in the South and Midwest. Language is partly a contributor to this cultural casualness. Numerous languages offer two forms of the pronoun “you,” which are used for informal and formal contexts. One form is meant for close friends and family, while the other shows social distance and respect for peers and superiors. Today Americans are informal unless formality is explicitly needed—or commanded, as in Ms. Boxer’s case.
Finding a balance gets to the heart of American equality. The self-evident truths in America’s founding documents refer to equal treatment under the law. They don’t mean that all people are equal in their abilities, interests or life outcomes. But the American credo recognizes that each human life is valued equally, and that everyone is owed, and owes to others, a level of respect by virtue of being a part of the human community.
America’s democratic view of respect is well-embodied in the Midwest, where people of every income level don bluejeans and flannel button-ups—and everyone eagerly demonstrates an equal measure of courtesy toward all. Surrendering professional narcissism is easier said than done. But man’s competing desire for precedence and equality can be ameliorated by drawing distinctions in context—private and public, informal and professional.
Honorifics that highlight hierarchy are important in professional settings. A clear chain of command is critical in places like courtrooms and battlefields, so deferring to title and rank there makes sense. But when professional hierarchies are appealed to in private and social settings, they dangerously distract from the equal value in all persons. Imagine if a senator demanded her family and friends refer to her as such in private settings.
Before the subject of presidential titles was broached, George Washington offered his thoughts on this topic. He wrote to Alexander Hamilton in August 1788, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”
From this country’s beginning, the first president voluntarily surrendered rank-related pretense—mindful to avoid exalting himself as Adams would have liked, or unduly offending others as Jefferson did. His aim was to better value and respect his fellow Americans. Let us each endeavor to do the same.
Ms. Hudson is writing a book on civility.
Appeared in the June 30, 2018, print edition.