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.


Should Americans Be Celebrating the Second of July?

It may not roll of the tongue as well as Fourth of July, but technically, the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – e.g. independence – did not occur on this day in 1776, but two days earlier, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve formal independence. (Note that the American Revolutionary War had already begun over a year before we got around to formally declaring independence!)

A draft of the declaration had already been commissioned almost a month earlier: on June 11, the Committee of Five – comprised of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston – was appointed to get to work on such a document for a future vote. After discussing the general outline of the document, the Committee decided that Jefferson should write the first draft, which was subsequently amended in some parts by Adams and Franklin (the Committee, including Jefferson himself, had wanted Adams to write the draft, but the latter convinced them otherwise and promised to work closely with Jefferson). Continue reading

Celebrating Fourth of July? You’re Either Two Days Late or One Month Early

Fourth of July factoid: the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain technically occurred on July 2, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a formal resolution of independence, which had first been suggested a month earlier.

The Declaration of Independence was hammered out two days later to explain this decision and subsequently signed July 4. Since what occurred July 2 was private, the American people saw the day that the public announcement was signed as the true day of independence — although John Adams allegedly preferred July 2 as the date. As he wrote on July 3:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

It gets more interesting: despite the claim of the Founding Fathers, many historians believe that the Declaration was actually signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776. Coincidentally, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – the only signers of the Declaration who would later serve as Presidents – died on the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration (moreover, although not a signer of the document, James Madison also died on July 4).

Anyway, have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Source: Wikipedia, Quartz