Given the New-York Historical Society’s reluctance to change so much as the hyphen in its own name (see “It Can Hyphen Here: Why the New-York Historical Society Includes a Hyphen”), it may come as a shock to learn that in 1845, N-YHS spearheaded an effort to give an entirely new name to the whole country.
On April 1, 1845, a three-person Committee appointed by the New-York Historical Society reported on “the subject of the irrelevant appellation, at present used for this country” and discussed a geographical name more likely to “promote national associations and prove efficient in History, Poetry and Art.” As these remarks suggest, the Committee was dissatisfied with the name “United States of America,” for several reasons.
First, it being a phrase “from which it is impossible to derive an adjective, we have no means of describing ourselves.” The term “United Staters” was dismissed as laughable, and “Americans” as simply inaccurate, there being two Americas, both rapidly rising in importance. This “want of a perfectly distinct and natural appellation” was felt by no less than the nation’s leading man of letters, Washington Irving, who complained that “In France, when I have announced myself as an American, I have been supposed to belong to one of the French colonies; in Spain, to be from Mexico or Peru, or some other Spanish American country. Repeatedly have I found myself engaged in a long geographical and political definition of my national identity.”
Second, the term “United States of America” was neither distinctive nor accurate, there being “on this continent four or five ‘United States.” Finally, it was distressing to poets, who found the phrase too unwieldy to properly celebrate in verse (even as talented a writer as Irving wondered how our poets would “manage to steer that collocation of words, “The United States of America,’ down the swelling tide of song, and to float the whole raft out upon the sea of heroic poesy”).
To remedy this unfortunate situation, the Committee members urged adoption of a name taken from “our mountains, or our lakes, or our rivers” — specifically (as Irving had urged), the Alleganian or Appalachian chain of mountains. “What we want,” concluded the Committee, “is a sign of our identity. We want utterance for our nationality.” They found the Alleganian range — which “binds the country together, as with a band of iron,” and was also associated with “the best parts of our own history, with colonial adventure, and revolutionary heroism” — exactly suited to this purpose.
Other natural features were considered but rejected: the Rocky Mountains were “too little familiar to us,” the Great Lakes were not national enough, and a number of states were already named after the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Besides, as Washington Irving pointed out, if the country adopted the United States of Alleghania as its new name, its initials would still be USA (on the other hand, Alleghania seems equally difficult to work into a poem and much harder to spell).
The Committee’s enthusiasm for the new name was not, however, shared by the rest of the country — or, for that matter, even the rest of the Society, who rejected the proposal at an apparently heated meeting held on May 13, 1845 (according to the Evening Gazette, Society President Albert Gallatin, formerly Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of Treasury, had difficulty keeping the members in order). Pointing out that the frontier had moved further west, the Evening Gazette ridiculed the name Allegania, and suggested that perhaps the name Fredonia should be adopted instead. While the sarcasm may not be obvious to modern readers, this referred jokingly to a prior and much-ridiculed proposal by statesman Samuel L. Mitchell to rename the USA Fredonia, a word he coined by combining the English “freedom” with a latinate ending.
Sister historical societies were equally derisive. Called on for support, the New Jersey Historical Society instead issued a stinging rebuke: “The object of Historical Societies is not to change the name of States or Empires, but to aid in the writing, and in the preservation of all that pertains to, their true history.” The Massachusetts Historical Society agreed in principle that the country needed a new name, but championed Columbia over Allegania, the latter evoking a “mere clod of earth — a mere chain of not even lofty mountains, overtopped as elevations above the surface of the earth, by the Alps in Europe, the Himmelayan [sic] chain in Asia, and the Andes of the sister continent of this hemisphere” (apparently Boston was bitter towards New York even before the Bambino’s curse).
Needless to say, the Committee’s proposal was never adopted. It was almost resurrected during the Civil War, when a Charleston journalist suggested that the Confederate states should adopt “a name for colloquial, journalistic and poetic uses.” But the name Allegania was given even shorter shrift in the south: “Even if there were a country here wanting a name, which there is not, what sort of propriety would there be in giving a designation to the Confederate States which would suggest the idea of their being still a portion of the United States? The Alleghany or Apalachian mountain chain extends from Maine to Alabama . . . therefore to give our Confederacy the name of “Allegania” or Apalachia” would be only strengthening that famous geographical argument of Mr. Seward, that the physical geography of the continent has itself peremptorily decreed an indissoluble union.”
Having survived the Civil War both nominally and corporally, the United States of America — like the hyphen — is here to stay.