Naming of the Nation
NAMING OF THE NATION
Although the Declaration of Independence marked the first official usage of the name "United States of America" to designate the new nation, the name was not entirely novel in 1776. Its constituent elements had evolved over time in response to changing circumstances in the colonies. Europeans since the early sixteenth century had recognized "America" as a geographic region, owing to the efforts of cartographers such as Gerard Mercator. The term increasingly acquired political connotations after colonization. During the French and Indian War, an abortive attempt to construct a colonial union signaled a growing identification among British Americans. This identity would ultimately be forged in opposition to England during the Revolution, when it became common to refer to the "United Colonies."
As the crisis with England deepened in the 1770s, some revolutionaries began referring to the colonies as "states," a word that did not convey the same sense of dependence. Royal officials such as Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, noted the changing terminology, but its meaning became evident only with the Declaration of Independence. The Continental Congress's instructions to have the Declaration reprinted and read aloud helped popularize the phrase "United States of America." And its subsequent usage in both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution solidified its status as the official name of the Republic by the end of the 1780s.
Not everyone in the new nation was satisfied with the name, however. The tercentennial of Columbus's first transatlantic voyage prompted some in the 1790s to suggest renaming the country in his honor. It had not been unusual in earlier centuries to call the New World "Columbia," and Americans in the post-Revolutionary period were adopting the term for everything from colleges to state capitals. Patriotic clubs even began making toasts to "the United Columbian States." Members of the newly formed Massachusetts Historical Society would especially champion the cause of Columbia. To them, the name not only provided a new, non-English (yet still European) identity for the nation, but also righted a historical wrong. Early mapmakers, they argued, had mistakenly attributed the discovery of the Americas to Amerigo Vespucci. Well into the nineteenth century, other historical societies would similarly propose to correct the error by removing Vespucci's name from the country's official title. The New-York Historical Society recommended "The Republic of Washington," while the Maryland Historical Society preferred "Allegania." Yet neither name captured the popular imagination.
Perhaps no single person expended greater effort to change the country's name than did Samuel Latham Mitchill, a congressman and later senator from New York. Mitchill's thoughts on the issue reflected both his patriotism and his embrace of Enlightenment rationalism. He found the term "United States of America" uninspiring because it merely reflected a formal political arrangement rather than capturing the spirit of freedom that animated the new nation. He accordingly proposed the name "Fredon" or "Fredonia," which he loosely translated as "house of liberty." Despite Mitchill's lobbying efforts among such luminaries as Noah Webster and President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, the name never gained much currency outside of his native New York.
Aberbach, Alan David. In Search of an American Identity: Samuel Latham Mitchill, Jeffersonian Nationalist. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.
Schlereth, Thomas J. "Columbia, Columbus, and Columbianism." The Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (December 1992): 937–968.
Zabriskie, George A. "Why We Are Called Americans." New-York Historical Society Quarterly 27 (October 1943): 79–86.
Jonathan M. Beagle