Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
President (history of the term)
The word president is derived from the Latin prae- "before" + sedere "to sit." As such, it originally designated the officer who "sits before" a gathering and ensures that debate is conducted according to the rules of order (see also chairman and speaker). This usage survives today in the title of such offices as "President of the Board of Trade" and "Lord President of the Council" in the United Kingdom, as well as "President of the Senate" (one of the roles constitutionally assigned to the Vice-President of the United States). In France, high-ranking magistrates have traditionally born the title of "president of the tribunal." The officiating priest at certain Anglican religious services, too, is sometimes called the "President" in this sense.
Today, however, the term president is more commonly used to designate an officer with executive and administrative powers that extend beyond the chairing of meetings and gatherings. In particular, the heads of state of most modern republics are referred to as "President." the use of the title "president" to designate the chief executive of a country can be traced directly to the United States Constitution of 1787, which created the office of President of the United States.
Previous American governments had included "Presidents" (see Continental Congress and President of the United States in Congress Assembled), but these were presiding officers in the older sense. It has been suggested that the executive use of the term was borrowed from early American colleges and universities, which were usually headed by a president. British universities were headed by an official called the "Chancellor" (typically a ceremonial position) while the chief administrator held the title of "Vice-Chancellor". But America's first institutions of higher learning (such as Harvard and Yale) didn't resemble a full-sized university so much as one of its constituent colleges. A number of colleges at Cambridge University featured an official called the "President." The head, for instance, of Magdalene College, Cambridge was called the master and his second the president. The first president of Harvard, Henry Dunster, had been educated at Magdalene. Some have speculated that he borrowed the term out of a sense of humility, considering himself only a temporary place-holder. The presiding official of Yale College, originally a "Rector" (after the usage of continental European universities), became "President" in 1745.
A common style of address for presidents, "Mr. President," is borrowed from British Parliamentary tradition, in which the presiding Speaker of the House of Commons is referred to as "Mr. Speaker."
Once the United States adopted the title of "President" for its Republican Head of State, many other nations followed suit. As South and Latin America became independent in the early 19th century, almost all of the new post-colonial nations chose a US-style President as their chief executive. Haiti became the first Caribbean Presidential republic when Henry Christophe assumed the title in 1807. The first European president was the President of France, a post created in the Second Republic of 1848. (The First Republic had harkened back to the ancient Roman Republic by appointing several consuls at its head.) The first African Presidents were the President of Liberia (created in 1848), followed by the President of Ghana in 1960. The first Asian president was the President of the Republic of China (1912).
- 1783- the United States' independence is recognized with the President of the United States in Congress Assembled as acting head of state.
- 1789- the formal office of President of the United States is created with George Washington as first President.
- 1806- Haiti separates from France and becomes a republic. Henry Christophe declares himself President of Haiti while Alexandre Pétion does so in rebellion. In 1820 the two regimes are united under a single president.
- 1819- Colombia declares independence from Spain with Simón Bolívar as first president.
- 1822- Greece proclaims independence from the Ottoman Empire with Alexandros Mavrokordatos claiming to be president.
- 1847- The US slave settlement of Liberia becomes Africa's first republic with Joseph Jenkins Roberts as president.
- 1848- after the fall of King Louis-Philippe France proclaims its Second Republic with a "President of the Republic" as new head of state.
- 1910- the monarchy of Portugal is deposed and the post President of Portugal is created.
- 1912- the Republic of China is founded after the Qing Dynasty is deposed, Sun Yat-sen becomes China's first president.
- 1959- Madagascar separates from France and establishes Africa's second presidency.
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