This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
People have indeed tossed around the question, “Who named this country?” for quite some time. It certainly is amusing that, for all our hubris about our national origins, we haven’t known who came up with the phrase, or even when. The New-York Historical Society’s collections give us an excellent opportunity to take this moment to glance at the newer documentary evidence.
The earlier research clustered around the days and weeks just preceding July 4, 1776. When the late New York Times wordsmith William Safire put himself to the task in 1998, he had a good deal of scholarly help and took some time in concluding that, while the phrase “United States of America” does appear in the Declaration of Independence, it was also bandied about by members of the Continental Congress working on other committees in June 1776. Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson could have employed it before Thomas Jefferson in his undated draft of the Articles of Confederation; that is an irony to enjoy since the patriot Dickinson famously refused to vote for or sign the Declaration.
The other Congressman who made use of the phrase in these pre-Declaration days was Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts as he wrote a newsy letter to General Horatio Gates on June 25, 1776. He reports “I think we are in a fair Way to a speedy Declaration of Independency.” One can see here that, in further writing of the resolve to “capitally punish” spies, Gerry managed to employ “United Colonies” and “United States of America” in the same sentence.
The capitalized “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” appears bluntly in print in a Philadelphia newspaper just days before the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence. There, the writer Republicus states, “as we cannot offer terms of peace to Great-Britain, until we agree to call ourselves by some name, I shall rejoice to hear the title of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in order that we may be on a proper footing to negociate [sic] a peace.” Republicus could have been one of those members of Congress just getting familiar with the phrase, or someone—pamphleteer Thomas Paine is a good candidate here—who hobnobbed with them in Philadelphia in these heady days.
All of this earlier speculation and research gets steamrolled over with Byron DeLear’s report in the Christian Science Monitor in 2012 that “united states of America” is plain to see in one of the long, anonymous, pro-Independence essays of “A Planter” published in the Williamsburg newspaper, the Virginia Gazette of April 6, 1776.
DeLear then trumped his own finding the following year when he brought the letter shown above to our attention. Here, on January 2, 1776, seven months before the Declaration of Independence and a week before the publication of Paine’s Common Sense, Stephen Moylan, an acting secretary to General George Washington, spells it out, “I should like vastly to go with full and ample powers from the United States of America to Spain” to seek foreign assistance for the cause.
Stephen Moylan was writing this letter from the Continental Army’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters to Colonel Joseph Reed, Washington’s aide-de-camp who was then on leave in Philadelphia. The Irish Catholic Moylan did have appropriate European contacts for his proposed Spanish mission since he had established himself in Lisbon as a merchant before settling in 1768 in Philadelphia, where, among other things, he was elected the first president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Moylan served in various capacities during the revolution, including quartermaster-general and cavalry colonel, but not without the vicissitudes—forced resignations, limited supplies, courts-martial—of a Continental officer in the protracted struggle. In a slim 1909 biography, he is depicted as a true hothead for independence (quite unlike his counterpart Joseph Reed). Moylan’s “United States of America” letter was published in this biography, as well as in the 1847 published life of Reed, without anyone taking any particular note of it. Digital technology makes it likely that these phrases will be sought and found in more efficient ways in the future.
Byron DeLear follows up on his discovery with the speculation that Moylan and Reed, as secretaries, would not likely be throwing around the term “United States of America” without the approval of their boss, Commander-in-Chief George Washington. Outside events at the turn of the new year, 1776, may indeed have tipped Washington himself toward independence and toward naming, in conversation at least, the country for which his newly-reformed Continental Army was fighting.
So, George Washington joins a list of figures: Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, Thomas Paine, and Elbridge Gerry—household names to history buffs—who were once thought to have named this country. But it may be appropriate to pause and give credit to Stephen Moylan of Cork, Lisbon, and Philadelphia, a mostly unknown figure for whom no portrait exists. Moylan remained close to George Washington, was appointed Commissioner of Loans in Philadelphia in 1793, and is the namesake of Moylan, an unincorporated community in southeast Pennsylvania. But, for us now, he, like the vast majority of veterans, has remained unheralded and forgotten in the centuries-long efforts to secure and maintain American freedom.
Note: In the comments, it has been brought to our attention that historian Curtis P. Nettels reported the Moylan phrasing in his 1951 volume, George Washington and American Independence (p. 232). Nettels’s concern was the substance of the letter, seeking foreign aid for the American cause.