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President is a title held by many leaders of organizations, companies, trade unions, universities, and countries. Etymologically, a "president" is one who presides, who sits in leadership (from Latin pre- "before" + sedere "to sit"; giving the term praeses). Originally, the term referred to the presiding officer of a ceremony or meeting (i.e., chairman), but today it most commonly refers to an official. Among other things, president today is a common title for the heads of state of most republics, whether popularly elected, chosen by the legislature or by a special electoral college. It is also often adopted by dictators.



As an English word, the term was originally used to refer to the presiding officer of a committee or governing body in Great Britain. Early examples are the President of the Exchequer ("presidentis" in the original Latin, from the Dialogue concerning the Exchequer, 1179), the presidents of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (from 1464), and the founding President of the Royal Society (William Brouncker, 1660).

Later this usage was applied to political leaders, including the leaders of some of the Thirteen Colonies (originally Virginia in 1608); in full, the "President of the Council".[1] The first president of a country was George Washington, the President of the United States. In America the title was "upgraded" from its earlier use for the President of the Continental Congress, the "officer in charge of the Continental Congress" since 1774. As other countries deposed their monarchies and became republics, president was commonly adopted as the title for the head of state. The first European president was the president of France, a post created in the Second Republic of 1848. The first president of an internationally recognized African state was the President of Liberia in 1848. Today, most republics have a President as their head of state.

Presidents as head of state

Presidents in democratic countries

Presidential systems

In states with a presidential system of government, the president exercises the functions of Head of State and Head of Government, i.e. he or she directs the executive branch of government.

Presidents in this system are either directly elected by popular vote or indirectly elected by an electoral college.

In the United States of America, the president is indirectly elected by the Electoral College made up of electors chosen by voters in the presidential election. In most U.S. states, each elector is committed to voting for a specified candidate determined by the popular vote in each state, so that the people, in voting for each elector, are in effect voting for the candidate. However, in four close U.S. elections (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000), the candidate with the most popular votes still lost the electoral count.

In Mexico, the president is directly elected for a six-year term by popular vote. The candidate who wins the most votes is elected president even without an absolute majority. The president may never get another term. The 2006 Mexican elections had a fierce competition, the electoral results showed a minimal difference between the two most voted candidates and such difference was just about the 0.58% of the total vote. The Federal Electoral Tribunal declared an elected President after a controversial post-electoral process.

In Brazil, the president is directly elected for a four-year term by popular vote. A candidate has to have more than 50% of the valid votes. If no candidates achieve a majority of the votes, there is a runoff election between the two candidates with most votes. Again, a candidate needs a majority of the vote to be elected. In Brazil, a president cannot be elected to more than two consecutive terms, but there is no limit on the number of terms a president can serve.

Many South American, Central American, and African nations follow the presidential model.

Semi-presidential systems

A third system is the semi-presidential system, also known as the French system, in which like the Parliamentary system there is both a president and a prime minister, but unlike the parliamentary system, the president may have significant day-to-day power. When his party controls the majority of seats in the National Assembly, the president can operate closely with the parliament and prime minister, and work towards a common agenda. When the National Assembly is controlled by opponents of the President however, the president can find himself marginalized with the opposition party prime minister exercising most of the power. Though the prime minister remains an appointee of the president, the president must obey the rules of parliament, and select a leader from the house's majority holding party. Thus, sometimes the president and prime minister can be allies, sometimes rivals; the latter situation is known as cohabitation. Variants of the French semi-presidential system, developed at the beginning of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle, are used in France, Finland, Romania, Russia, Sri Lanka and several post-colonial countries which have emulated the French model.

Parliamentary systems

Another system is the Parliamentary republic, where the Presidency is largely ceremonial. This system is mainly used in former one-party states and constitutional monarchies. Countries using this system include the Republic of Ireland, Malta, Italy, Austria, Iceland, India, Germany and Greece.

Collective Presidency

Only a tiny minority of modern republics do not have a single head of state; examples include:

Presidents in dictatorships

In dictatorships, the title is frequently taken by self-appointed and/or military-backed leaders. Such is the case in many African states; Idi Amin in Uganda, for example.

President for Life is a title assumed by some dictators to ensure that their authority or legitimacy is never questioned.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla appointed himself in 82 BC to an entirely new office, dictator rei publicae constituendae causa, which was functionally identical to the dictatorate rei gerendae causa except that it lacked any set time limit, although Sulla held this office for over two years before he voluntarily abdicated and retired from public life. The second well-known incident of a leader extending his term indefinitely was Roman dictator Julius Caesar, who made himself "Perpetual Dictator" (commonly mistranslated as 'Dictator-for-life') in 45 BC. His actions would later be mimicked by the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte who was appointed "First Consul for life" in 1802.

Ironically, most leaders who proclaim themselves President for Life do not in fact successfully serve a life term. Even so presidents like Alexandre Pétion, Rafael Carrera, Josip Broz Tito and François Duvalier died in office.

The last living person to be officially proclaimed president for life was Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan.

Several presidents have ruled until their death, but they have not officially proclaimed themselves as President for Life. For instance, Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania, who ruled until his execution (see Romanian revolution).

Presidential symbols

As the country's head of state, in most countries the president is entitled to certain perquisites, and may have a prestigious residence; often a lavish mansion or palace, sometimes more than one (e.g. summer and winter residence, country retreat) - for a list see Official residence.

Furthermore in some nations, the Presidency enjoys certain symbols of office, such as an official uniform, decorations, a presidential seal, coat of arms, flag and other visible accessories; military honours such as gun salutes, Ruffles and flourishes, and a presidential guard. A common presidential symbol is the presidential sashes worn by mostly Latin American presidents as a symbol of the presidency's continuity, and presenting the sash to the new president.

Presidential chronologies of United Nations member countries

Presidential titles for non heads of state

As head of government

Some countries with parliamentary systems use a term meaning/translating as 'president' (in some languages indistinguishable from chairman) for the head of parliamentary government, often as President of the Government, President of the Council of Ministers or President of the Executive Council.

However, such an official is explicitly not the president of the country. Rather, he is called a president in an older sense of the word to denote the fact that he heads the cabinet. A separate head of state generally exists in their country that instead serves as the president or monarch of the country.

Thus, such officials are really premiers, and to avoid confusion are often described simply as 'prime minister' when being mentioned internationally.

There are several examples for this kind of presidency:

Other executive positions

Sub-national presidents

President can also be the title of the chief executive at a lower administrative level, such as the parish presidents of the parishes of the U.S. state of Louisiana, the presiding member of city council for villages in the U.S. state of Illinois, or the municipal presidents of Mexico's municipalities. Perhaps the best known sub-national presidents are the borough presidents of the Five Boroughs of New York City.


In Quebec, Canada the Speaker of the National Assembly of Quebec is termed President since 1968

Presidential ranks

Below a President, there can be a number of vice-presidents. This rank does not hold the same power, but power can be transferred in special circumstances. Normally Vice-Presidents hold some power and special responsibilities below that of the President.



In French legal terminology, the president of a court consisting of multiple judges is the foremost judge; he chairs the meeting of the court and directs the debates (and this thus addressed as "Mr President", Monsieur le Président, or appropriate feminine forms). In general, a court comprises several chambers, each with its own president; thus the most senior of these is called the "first president" (as in: "the First President of the Court of Cassation is the most senior judge in France"). Similarly in English legal practice the most senior judge in each division uses this title (e.g. President of the Family Division, President of the Court of Appeal).


The Lord President of the Court of Session is head of the judiciary in Scotland, and presiding judge (and Senator) of the College of Justice and Court of Session, as well as being Lord Justice General of Scotland and head of the High Court of Justiciary, the offices having been combined in 1784.

Non-governmental presidents

President is also used as a title in some non-governmental organizations.

The head of a university or non-profit corporation, particularly in the United States of America, is often known as president. In academic or education systems with multiple independent campuses, the relationship between the roles of university president and chancellor can become quite complicated. President is also a title in many corporations. In some cases the president acts as chief operating officer under the direction of the chief executive officer. Alternatively, in the U.S., the chairperson of the board of directors may be called the president.

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the head of the church is known as the President. Together with his two counselors, they are known as the First Presidency. This pattern is repeated throughout the church in quorums and in other bodies, each of which is led by a president. The Methodist Church in the UK (and also other provinces) is led by the President of the Methodist Council, and assumes the role of leading minister and spokesperson.

Many other organisations, clubs, and committees, both political and non-political are led by Presidents as well. Examples can vary from the President of a political party, to the president of a chamber of commerce, to the President of a students' union and even the president of a high school chess club.

Sources and additional reading

  • The powers, functions and functioning of presidents were reviewed by six international experts for Australia's Republic Advisory Committee in 1993. Reports by among others Professor Klaus Von Beyme (on Germany), A. G. Noorani (on India), Jim Duffy (on Ireland) and Sir Ellis Clarke (on Trinidad and Tobago) outline the role of various presidencies. The full report is called An Australian Republic: The Options - The Appendices (ISBN 0-644-32589-5)

See also


  1. ^ OED, s. v.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

PRESIDENT (Fr. president, from Lat. praesidens, postAugustan Lat. for praeses, director, ruler, from praesidere, to sit in front of, preside), a style or title of various connotation, but always conveying the sense of one who presides. In classical Latin the title praeses, or president, was given to all governors of provinces, but was confined in the time of Diocletian to the procurators who, as lieutenants of the emperor, governed the smaller provinces. In this sense it survived in the middle ages. Du Cange gives instances from the capitularies of Charlemagne of the style praeses provinciae as applied to the count; and later examples of praeses, or praesidens, as used of royal seneschals and other officials having jurisdiction under the Crown.

In England the word survived late in this sense of royal lieutenant. Thus, John Cowell, in his Interpreter of Words (1607) defines "President" as "used in Common Law for the King's lieutenant in any province or function; as President of Wales, of York, of Berwick. President of the King's Council." In some of the British North American colonies (New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina) there was a president of the council, usually elected by the council; and when Pennsylvania and New Hampshire became states, one member of the Executive Council was called president. The chief (and single) executive head in Delaware, South Carolina and New Hampshire (1784-1792) was called president.

During the revolutionary struggle in America from 1774 onwards, the presiding officer of the Continental Congress was styled "President" and when the present constitution of the United States was framed in 1787 (in effect 1789) the title of President was transferred to the head of the Federal government. "President" thus became the accepted style for the elected chief of a modern republic, the example of the United States being followed by the South American republics, by France in 1849, and by Switzerland.

In the simple sense of "one who presides" the word "president" preserved its meaning alongside the technical use implying royal delegation. In this sense the New English Dictionary quotes its use by Chaucer (Troylus, iv. 185) in 1374. In ecclesiastical terminology praesidens was sometimes used for the head of cathedral chapters, instead of dean or provost; and it was sometimes the title given to the principal visitor of monasteries, notably in the reformed congregation of Cluny (Du Cange). In the United Kingdom the heads of many colleges are styled "president," the title being of considerable antiquity in the case of one college at Cambridge (Queens', founded in 1448) and four at Oxford (St John's, Magdalen, Corpus Christi, Trinity). At five Cambridge colleges (Pembroke, Gonville and Caius, St Catherine's, St John's, Magdalene) the title "president" is borne by the second in authority, being the equivalent of "vicemaster." In the United States "president" is the usual style of the head of a college and also of a university wherever this has developed out of a single college. "President" is also the style of persons elected to preside over the meetings of learned, scientific, literary and artistic academies and societies, e.g. the president of the Royal Academy (P.R.A.) in London; the title of the president of the Royal Society (P.R.S.) dates from its foundation in 1660. In the United States the style "president" is also given to the person who presides over the proceedings of financial, commercial and industrial corporations (banks, railways, &c.), in Great Britain usually styled "chairman," but in the case of the Bank of England and certain other banks "governor." In Great Britain the title "president" is also borne by certain ministers of the Crown and certain judges, and preserves some of the ancient connotation of a royal lieutenancy explained above. Thus the style of "president" applied to the heads of the board of agriculture, local government board, board of education, board of trade, &c., which are all committees of the privy council, is derived from that of the lord president of the council, the representative of the king. The presidents of the court of session in Scotland, and of the probate and divorce division, &c. in England, also bear this style ultimately as representatives of the Crown.

In France, besides the president of the republic, there are presidents of the senate and of the chamber of deputies. In Germany the word Prasident is used in most of the English senses of "president," e.g. of a corporation, society, assembly or political body. As a judicial title Prasident is confined to the head of any one of the corporations (Kollegien) on the basis of which the judicial system of the empire is organized (Landgericht, Oberlandesgericht, Reichsgericht), and must be distinguished from that of Vorsitzender (literally also praesidens), i.e. the judge (who may or may not be the Prasident) selected to preside over a division of the court appointed to try particular cases.

In Prussia Prasident also retains its old sense of "governor," Oberpreisident being the title of the chief of the administration of a province, Prasident that of the head of a government district (Regierungsbezirk). The consistories of the established Protestant Church are also presided over by a Prasident, who is a royal official.

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Simple English

A president is the leader of a country or a company or other group. A president is usually elected by the people in that group. Voting is one way to elect a president.


Electing a President

The United States has a president. He is elected by the electoral college. Companies have presidents. They are elected by the people who own part of the company. In some companies, the people who are workers for the company elect (vote for) their company president.

Power of a President

The president of a country is not the same thing as a prime minister. A prime minister is part of a parliament, but a president is not. In some countries, (such as the United States or France), the president has more power and responsibility than anyone else. In other countries (such as Ireland or Israel), to be president is more of an honor or a symbol, and the position has no real power. The president is often called the nation's chief executive. As chief executive, the president must take an active role in all phases of government.

Most countries that have a King or Queen as their monarch have no president.

The American President is restricted by the written United States Constitution, which can be changed but only if two-thirds of congress as well as the President and three-fourths of the states agree to it. The American constitution was created to make sure that the American executive never became as powerful as the British system it had broken away from. The British Prime Minister is part of both the Legislature and Executive, whereas the American President is the head of the Executive. The American governmental system shows a clear separation of powers unlike the British system.

  • All the president's ministerial appointments have to be vetted by Congress (parliament) and Congress may have an opposition majority.
  • The president does not have the ability to introduce and influence legislation in the same way as the British prime minister.
  • Congress has much greater control over the budget and foreign policy than the British Parliament.
  • There are broad areas of American life, such as education, crime and punishment, over which the president has virtually no influence at all.
  • The president even has very limited control over the economy.

So despite having a large nuclear arsenal, the American president can not carry out policy and introduce legislation as freely as the British prime minister.

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