Blogs > Cliopatria > Czar Wars: How did a term for Russian royalty work its way into American government?

Dec 30, 2008 3:30 pm

Czar Wars: How did a term for Russian royalty work its way into American government?

When Benjamin Franklin wanted to describe our national indifference to royal pomp and circumstance, he would compare Americans to a London porter whose heavy load once jostled Czar Peter the Great. When told he had just bumped into the czar, the porter responded:"Poh! We are all czars here!"

Franklin's porter could have been describing the incoming Obama administration. Already Tom Daschle has been tapped for"health czar" and Carol Browner for" climate czar." Adolfo Carrión is expected to be the"urban affairs czar." There's also been talk of a"technology czar" and a" copyright czar." Plans for a" car czar" recently fell apart on Capitol Hill, but Obama and the incoming Congress will try, try again in the new year.

This efflorescence of czars—those interagency point people charged with cutting through red tape to coordinate policy—has people wondering: Why do we use a term from imperial Russia to describe bureaucratic troubleshooters?

Czar first entered English back in the mid-16th century, soon after Baron Sigismund von Herberstein used the word in a Latin book published in 1549. The more correct romanization, tsar, became the standard spelling in the late 19th century, but by that time czar had caught on in popular usage, emerging as a handy label for anyone with tyrannical tendencies.

On the American scene, czar was first bestowed on one of Andrew Jackson's foes: Nicholas Biddle, president of the Bank of the United States. Jackson vehemently opposed the centralized power of the bank, which he called a"hydra of corruption," and his clash with Biddle exploded into the"Bank War" of 1832-36. One of Jackson's staunchest allies in this fight, Washington Globe Publisher Frank Blair, dubbed Biddle"Czar Nicholas"—a potent image at a time when Russia's Nicholas I was at the height of his repressive nationalist regime. (Jackson's opponents fought fire with fire, calling him King Andrew I.) ....

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Robert Lee Gaston - 1/5/2009

Because it sounds better than "This is to provide an illusion of action", or "See, you got a czar, now go away", or "fall guy" is just too direct, or "This is too hard to think about", or "This dog just won't hunt". Take your pick.

However, rest assured that if you have a czar it will do about as well as the one in 1918.