11.5.14_feat

Who Coined the Phrase ‘United States of America’? You May Never Guess

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections

Stephen Moylan to Joseph Reed, January 2, 1776. Joseph Reed Papers.
Stephen Moylan to Joseph Reed, January 2, 1776. Joseph Reed Papers.

Take a look.  Dated January 2, 1776, Reed-Moylan1 many months earlier than once thought, this, quite likely, is the first time the name “United States of America” was ever written, or possibly even expressed.

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.

Portrait of John Dickinson published by R. Wilkinson, May 1783. PR 52 Portrait File
Portrait of John Dickinson published by R. Wilkinson, May 1783. PR 52 Portrait File

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.

Elbridge Gerry to Horatio Gates, June 25, 1776; Horatio Gates Papers.

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.

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[Philadelphia] Pennsylvania Evening Post, June 29, 1776. Newspaper Collection

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.

(Williamsburgh) Virginia Gazette , printed by Dixon and Hunter, April 6, 1776
[Williamsburg] Virginia Gazette , printed by Dixon and Hunter, April 6, 1776. Newspaper Collection
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.

Joseph Reed, Painted by Charles Willson Peale; Engraved by John Sartain, PR 052 Portrait File
Joseph Reed, Painted by Charles Willson Peale; Engraved by John Sartain, PR 052 Portrait File

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.

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Comments

  1. says

    Many thanks for your piece covering these discoveries into who named our nation. When I saw the Virginia Gazette “A Planter” essays for the first time—I didn’t believe it; and was even more dumbfounded when I discovered Stephen Moylan’s earlier letter.

    There are two forthcoming publications which will contain this research—1. The 2014 issue of Raven: A Journal of Vexillology, and 2., the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) will be publishing my standalone book, “Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill: Grand Union or just British?” in early 2015.

    Both contain illuminating details on the notions of independence congealing at that very moment, during the Siege of Boston, the beginning of 1776, now known as America’s “Revolutionary Year.”

    There’s a distinct possibility that Moylan’s-naming-of-the-U.S.A. letter was somehow connected to, or, perhaps, inspired by, a little known flag-raising ceremony conducted by Gen. Washington on Prospect Hill. Washington raised the first flag of America there on New Year’s Day, 1776, to commemorate the “new establishment” of the Continental Army. The background of this flag and what it evidently represented are commensurate with Washington’s explicit desires to build a wholly continental force.

    Stephen Moylan, Esq., acting as Washington’s aide-de-camp, was surely aware of this ceremony, and in his U.S.A. letter on the next day mentions Washington’s forthcoming letter to Lt. Col. Joseph Reed, which was eventually dated January 4, 1776. I can just imagine the two men huddled around candlelight together in Washington’s HQ in Cambridge (now known as “Longfellow House”) both writing to Reed. These three gentlemen were at the heart of the revolutionary enterprise, so-to-speak, and were enthusiastically conducting the business of birthing a nation. Washington’s letter to Reed mentions the flag-raising ceremony. Moylan writes “United States of America” for the first time. The history laid out in “Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill…” hints at the possibility: a new navy, a new army, a new flag for both; and perhaps, a new name as well. I find it all very fascinating and if any would like to read a little more about that Prospect Hill flag-raising ceremony I covered it recently in a piece entitled, “Was America’s name first uttered on Prospect Hill on New Year’s Day, 1776.” Each year, the City of Somerville, near Boston, conducts a touching commemoration of the Prospect Hill, Grand Union flag event — in less than a month’s time this new flag was hoisted above both the new navy and new army; it is a pivotal paragraph in America’s birth certificate.

    Here’s the link if interested: http://www.examiner.com/article/was-america-s-name-first-uttered-on-prospect-hill-on-new-year-s-day-1776

    • Mariam says

      Thank you for joining this conversation and for your additional insights, Byron! Colonel Reed had left camp at the end of October 1775, and, although very much the active patriot, he was a bit of a slowpoke on Independence. So my suspicion is that Moylan (and perhaps Washington, as well) was trying to prod him along in some of these letters. Moylan is less subtle by January 30, when he writes to Reed, “Shall we never leave off debating and boldly declare Independence. That and that only will make us act with spirit and vigour.”

  2. says

    It might be better to call this a rediscovery. The following appears on p. 232 of the 1976 book George Washington and American Independence by Curtis Putnam Nettels:

    “On January 2, Washington’s amanuensis, Stephen Moylan, proposed that he be sent to Spain ‘with full and ample powers from the United States of America.’ This highly important letter to Joseph Reed was undoubtedly intended to be passed around among members of Congress. It has a special meaning because, among the surviving records of the time, it is the earliest paper in which appears the phrase: ‘The United States of America.'”
    http://books.google.com/books?id=NCcTAQAAMAAJ

    • Mariam says

      Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention, Mr. Zimmer. I had somehow failed to find it in my original Google Books search.

  3. says

    Ben Zimmer, many thanks for bringing this book to our attention. “George Washington and American Independence,” by Curtis P. Nettels was originally published in 1951 by the Little Brown Company. I had neither seen this title nor its citation in my research into the Prospect Hill flag-raising event in Boston on New Year’s Day, 1776 (the subject of my forthcoming book). It’s remarkable this reference escaped William Safire and his associate researchers for the two New York Times articles in 1998 covering the topic (‘On Language; Paine In the Neck,’ 3/29/98; and ‘On Language; Name That Nation’ 7/5/98). However, I’m happy to have discovered the A PLANTER Virginia Gazette citation and brought new light to Stephen Moylan’s Jan. 2 letter to Lt. Col. Joseph Reed; in particular, its potential connection to the first flag of America raised by Gen. Washington on Prospect Hill at the dawning of America’s “Revolutionary Year.” It’s also reassuring to know that such an important artifact is in safe keeping at the N-YHS.

  4. says

    “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.”

    I am fascinated Moylan’s early use of this “classified”, seditious title for a new, independence seeking nation. It’s a given that, if the Second Continental Congress had learned of Moylan’s potential for leaking it, months before they were prepared to declare it, would not be happy.

    “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 ‘Planter’ published in the Williamsburg newspaper, the Virginia Gazette of April 6, 1776.”

    DeLear is right to suggest that Jefferson was possibly the writer of the A Planter letters. However, the more important observation, is that the author of the A Planter letters was also the author of the Dikephilos letters published in 1766.

    Jefferson was Dikephilos, aka “The Monster of Monticello.”

    Atticus

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