The title “president” — derived from the Latin praesidere, which means “to sit before” — had usually been reserved for heads of colleges or ceremonial titles in congresses or committees. For example, John Hancock was president of the Second Continental Congress. Before American independence, leaders of European countries were called kings, queens, emperors, dukes, or even Lord Protectors (during England’s more revolutionary years), but never “president.” Article II of the U.S. Constitution enshrined the title “President,” reflecting the democratic sentiments of post-revolutionary America.
The country’s founding document didn’t solve all the intricacies related to the title. In the spring of 1789, Congress debated exactly how to address the President. John Adams, then Vice President and head of the Senate, hand-picked a committee that thought the title “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same” (or something similar) put George Washington on even footing with his royal European peers, but many other lawmakers thought the title too monarchical and Thomas Jefferson called it “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of.” Washington opted for just plain “President of the United States.” Decades later, Haiti followed suit by naming its leader “president” in 1807. Today, dozens of countries use the title for their heads of state.