As if George Washington hasn’t been credited enough with laying the foundation stones of the American republic, a new discovery might put one more feather in his cap. Our leading Founding Father could have been author of the country's name.
The identity of who coined the name “United States of America” has eluded historians for years. Online sources vary greatly, erroneously crediting Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and others.
But a letter written by Washington’s aide-de-camp on Jan. 2, 1776, discovered this past Memorial Day, suggests that Washington might have been one of the first people – if not the first person – to utter the words "United States of America."
Previously, William Safire and a bevy of Oxford and American researchers essentially concluded in 1998 that Thomas Jefferson was the originator. Jefferson wrote “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” in the header of his “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence sometime on or after June 11, 1776. Then last summer, the Monitor reported the discovery of an earlier citation in an anonymous essay appearing in the Virginia Gazette, dated April 6, 1776.
This latest find comes in a letter that Stephen Moylan, Esq., wrote to Col. Joseph Reed from the Continental Army Headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., during the Siege of Boston. The two men lived with Washington in Cambridge, with Reed serving as Washington’s favorite military secretary and Moylan fulfilling the role during Reed’s absence.
The letter touched on the colonies' desire to enlist Europe's help in their revolution – most likely in procuring much-needed armaments and gunpowder. The shortage of powder was so desperate that, at one point, orders were issued to use wooden harpoons instead of guns. Moylan wrote that he wished to carry the “full and ample powers from the United States of America” to Europe to support the revolutionary enterprise.
The letter was written at a time when the American colonies were increasingly taking on the trappings of a new, independent nation. As historian Kevin Philips summarizes, “Despite lack of international legal recognition, the Continental Congress functioned as a de facto war government. By the end of 1775, the United Colonies had also created an army (June 15), a navy (October 13), and even a marine corps (November 10).”
When Congress appointed Washington commander-in-chief and dispatched him to Boston, Washington called his men “the Troops of the United Provinces of North America.” Washington sought to turn these troops into a fighting force capable of engaging the most powerful military of the age, and at different times, Reed and Moylan worked side by side with him, issuing orders, writing letters, and sitting in council.
On Christmas Day 1775, just eight days before his "USA" letter, Moylan inscribed on the flap of a document: “On the service of the United Colonies.” Yet on Jan. 2 he wrote of the “full and ample powers from the United States of America.”
What could have caused this shift?
There are two significant events that occurred between Christmas Day 1775, and Jan. 2, 1776, that could have precipitated the shift in tone.
The first was King George III's speech to Parliament, which arrived in the hands of the Continental Army on New Year’s Day. In it, George III condemns the rebellion in the colonies, calling his American subjects “deluded” and their leaders “traitorous.” He accuses the conspirators as having designs for an “independent empire,” and lays out his plan to expand British land and naval forces in America and seek the assistance of foreign steel to crush the rebellion.
For many Americans, this was the last straw. It was their Rubicon – all-out war was now inevitable.
The second event, also on New Year’s Day, was the unfurling of what is known as the first flag of America, the Grand Union flag, which featured 13 characteristic red-and-white stripes with the British Union Jack in the canton. The Grand Union flag was raised by Washington on Boston's Prospect Hill in a ceremony to commemorate the inauguration of the Continental Army of '76 – the reformed army that Washington had worked tirelessly to build. It must have been a heady occasion, and perhaps the phrase “United States of America” was sounded that day.
What is known is that Washington understood and practiced the virtue of restraint – he was careful and cautious. His political steps and maneuvers were well thought out, and although notions of independence were likely discussed frequently among the Founders, many of these men were reticent to articulate as much in print. It was something you could lose your head over.
Washington later said he had given up any hope for peace by November 1775 after learning of the king’s proclamation for suppressing rebellion. But the king’s latest speech went even further and was actually inflammatory – so much so, the continental soldiers burned it on arrival. For all intents and purposes, the British king accused the Americans of already declaring independence, as Moylan writes to Reed, “Look at the King’s speech – it is enclosed in this, or in the General’s letter to you … – will they [Congress] not declare what his Most Gracious Majesty insists on they have already done?”
This letter from Washington to Reed mentioned by Moylan oozes with subtlety and sarcasm. For the calculating Washington, it suggests the veiled language of a man telling his most trusted and perceptive aide that all-out war is coming and, perhaps, that it could only lead to a declaration of independence, which happened seven months later.
“We are at length favoured with a sight of his Majesty’s most gracious speech. Breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects; the echo has not yet come to hand, but we know what it must be….”
In Moylan's Jan. 2 letter, maybe "United States of America" was a slip of the pen, so to speak – the idea of a new nation that, until then, could only be whispered. Nevertheless, it is concrete evidence that the phrase “United States of America” was written, and most likely spoken, in a home in Cambridge converted to a war office at the dawning of America’s revolutionary year. Whether Washington, Moylan, or even Reed should be credited is somewhat beside the point. In many matters, all three spoke with one voice – the voice of the commander-in-chief of what would become the United States of America.