The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay


When the Senate declined to address the Speaker as honorable , Maclay observed, “I think our Vice President may go and dream about titles, for none will he get.” When Adams raised the question of how he should conduct himself at the President’s Inauguration, Maclay recorded it: “Gentlemen, I feel great difficulty how to act. I am possessed of two separate powers; the one in esse and the other in posse . I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything. But I am president also of the Senate. When the President comes into the Senate, what shall 1 be? I can not be [president] then. No, gentlemen, I can not. … 1 wish gentlemen to think what I shall be.” Here, as if oppressed with a sense of his distressed situation, he threw himself back in his chair. A solemn silence ensued. God forgive me, for it was involuntary, but the profane muscles of my face were in tune for laughter in spite of my indisposition. [Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut] thumbed over the sheet Constitution and turned it for some time. At length he rose and addressed the Chair with the utmost gravity: “Mr. President, I have looked over the Constitution (pause), and I find, sir, it is evident and clear, sir, that wherever the Senate are to be, there, sir, you must be at the head of them. But further, sir (here he looked aghast, as if some tremendous gulf had yawned before him), I shall not pretend to say.”

In the Senate chamber following the Inauguration, Adams referred to the President’s inaugural address as his most gracious speech , and he included the phrase in the next day’s minutes. When no one else protested, Maclay rose: “Mr. President, we have lately had a hard struggle for our liberty against kingly authority. The minds of men are still heated: everything related to that species of government is odious to the people. The words prefixed to the President’s speech are the same that are usually placed before the speech of his Britannic Majesty. I know they will give offense. I consider them as improper. I therefore move that they be struck out, and that it stand simple address or speech, as may be judged most suitable.”

Adams expressed the greatest surprise that anything should be objected to simply because it was taken from the practice of that government under which Americans had formerly lived so long and so happily. He was, he said, in favor of a dignified and respectable government. He was one of the first in the Revolution, but “if he could have thought of this, he never would have drawn his sword. ” Maclay, “painful as it was … to contend with the chair,” declared that the enemies of the Constitution would consider the phrase “as the first step of the ladder in the ascent to royalty.” After further debate the members voted to erase the phrase most gracious speech .

The debate on choice of a title for the President raged for several days. Maclay led the fight against any title other than that named in the Constitution: President of the United States of America . Adams observed that the heads of fire companies and cricket clubs were called president . Lee, chairman of the Committee on Titles, read a long list of the identifying names of all the princes and potentates of the world. Suggestions were made, among them excellency, his most benign highness, high mightiness, elective majesty , and elective highness . Maclay protested that elective highness sounded very much like electoral highness and would have “a most ungrateful sound to many thousands of industrious citizens who had fled from German oppression”— a reference to the German princes formerly entitled to elect the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.


On May 9 the committee produced the recommended result of its labors: His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same . Adams spoke for forty minutes from the chair and said among other things: “Suppose the President to have [made] the appointment of Mr. Jefferson at the court of France. Mr. Jefferson is, in virtue of that appointment, the most illustrious, the most powerful, and what not. But the President must be himself something that includes all the dignities of the diplomatic corps and something greater still. What will the common people of foreign countries, what will the sailors and the soldiers say, ‘George Washington, President of the United States’? They will despise him to all eternity . This is all nonsense to the philosopher, but so is all government whatever.”

Maclay went through his arguments once again. He read the clause in the Constitution against granting or receiving titles of nobility. The Constitution had designated the title of the Chief Magistrate, he said, and the Senate had no power to alter it. To do so would cause a rupture with the other house. “As to what the common people, soldiers and sailors of foreign countries may think of us, I do not think it imports us much. Perhaps the less they think, or have occasion to think of us, the better.”