The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.

 

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Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together). Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (Landofthebrave.info)

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading