Do presidents removed from office still retain honorific titles?

Does a person still get to be "the honorable" if they are tossed out for not being honorable?

Former presidents Bush, Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Carter

David Hume Kennerly/GettyImages
  • The President of the United States is entitled "Mr/Ms. President," "the honorable," and "their Excellency" depending on the context.
  • The first two of these follow a person all of their life, including long after they leave the office that gave it to them.
  • The question of whether an impeached president could still be called "the honorable" is still open, since no precedent exists for it.


Unless you've been living under a rock or subscribing to some odd legal advice, you probably know that the House of Representatives has impeached President Trump. He joins Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson as only the third president to have been given the strictest reprimand the lower house of Congress can bestow[1]. However, neither Johnson or Clinton were removed from office by the Senate.This means that the United States is in mostly uncharted territory, with only two examples to look at for precedent, one of which was over 150 years ago. Many questions, from what rules the Senate should apply to how to get a president to leave the White House, remain.

One of them is how to refer to a previous president who was dishonorably discharged from their duties. After all, we currently refer to former presidents as "Mr. President" and afford them the honorific of the "honorable." But, would this be different?

A question of titles

What to address the president has been a continuing question in American history. John Adams famously wanted to give the president the exhausted honorific of his "majesty" to help assure the office would be respected. While his fellow revolutionaries Jefferson and Franklin found his proposal to be insane. Other proposals at the time included a reference to the old Dutch Republic with the title his "High Mightiness."

In the end, the simple title of "Mr. President" won out. It did not extend beyond the term of office, however, and ex-presidents reverted to their old titles after returning to private life. Washington became "general" again, Adams became "mister," and Teddy Roosevelt became "colonel." It is a recent development that former presidents have retained the title after leaving office.

Today, the president is given the courtesy title of the "honorable" as a perk of office just the same as judges, diplomats, members of Congress, and other officials. While it might stand to reason that a person removed from office for "high crimes and misdemeanors" might not be "honorable" anymore, this may not be the case. According to Robert Hickey, Deputy Director of the Protocol School of Washington, this title sticks with a person even after they leave the office that granted them the title. He gives the simple rule of "once an honorable, always an honorable." This would suggest the title would remain even if the holder were removed from office.

Similarly, Mary K. Mewborn points out in an article on the topic that there are at least 100,000 "honorables" in the United States as a result of this rule. Among them "all of the politically appointed ambassadors, past and present (many of whom are considered to have bought their titles through large contributions), former actors, an ex-wrestler, a spokesman for Viagra, some doctors, lots of lawyers, and an Indian chief. There are more than a few ex-convicts bearing the title as well."

Her description of the potential creation of a law to strip the term from those convicted of crimes or violating ethics codes further suggests that no such protocol existed at the time her article was written.

To put all doubt to rest, the State Department also agrees on the use of the title after a person leaves office.

For the curious, the president is also deemed their "excellency" in diplomatic correspondence, but that title is attached to the office and used only in limited circumstances. It would never be used when directly addressing the president today.

Just as we are in uncharted constitutional waters, impeachment has left us in uncharted waters for etiquette as well. While the evidence suggests that you can't lose the title of "honorable," it might also be said the current situation is a little different than any case before. We'll have to wait and see.

[1] Richard Nixon, seeing the writing on the wall, resigned before an impeachment vote could take place. He is often, erroneously, included in this group anyway.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
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Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
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Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
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  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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