Stephen Moylan: Meet the Man Credited with Naming the 'United States of America'
Who first called this country the ‘United States of America’? It would seem a very important question, and yet there is no completely definitive answer. Many people assume it was Thomas Jefferson, with the Declaration of Independence, but the title was certainly used before that—by Continental Congress delegate Elbridge Gerry, for instance, as well as more than one newspaper. So what is the earliest verifiable use of the name? For that, we’ll have to go to a Jan. 2, 1776 letter from a nearly forgotten hero of the American Revolution: Stephen Moylan.
There is all too little known about Moylan, despite his undoubted historical importance; in fact, there is reportedly not a single contemporaneous portrait of him. Moylan was an Irish Catholic immigrant to America, a merchant who early in the war joined George Washington’s “secret” Navy (Washington did not have authority to create a Navy from Congress, but believed a Navy was essential to the Americans’ war effort and began outfitting one in late 1775). Historian Patrick K. O’Donnell describes Moylan while discussing Washington’s Navy in The Indispensables:
“As the enterprise expanded, Washington brought in the army’s muster-master general, Stephen Moylan, to assist [John] Glover in managing the burgeoning navy. The muster-master general had the arduous task of accounting for the men in each of the Continental Army’s units. A tough, husky Irish immigrant, Moylan hailed from a prominent Irish trading family who sent him to Paris and later Lisbon for his education. The well-spoken gentleman with a brogue had a keen mind for international trade and business. Elected before the war as the first president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, an organization of prosperous merchants, Moylan is credited with coining the term ‘the United States of America’ in a January 2, 1776, missive to Joseph Reed, Washington’s secretary and aide-de-camp.”
Whether Moylan invented the term himself, or had heard it from other men such as George Washington, is not known. What is key is that this seems to be the earliest recorded use of the name “United States of America.” And Moylan served those United States well, both in the Revolution that ensured their independence and afterwards, as well:
“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.”
So what was this letter about? Moylan, for one thing, was writing to talk about his difficulties getting supplies—he also analyzed the qualifications of fellow soldiers/sailors serving with him. It is very significant, however, that Moylan only days before had “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” in his letter to Reed. While we do not know exactly what caused the shift, there were likely several factors—including the unfurling of the “Grand Union” flag on New Year’s Day, the first official flag of America. An insulting and threatening speech from King George III of England to Parliament also arrived in the American colonies at New Year’s, indicating there would be no diplomatic working out of differences. Moylan in fact wrote about the latter, “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?” King George said the Americans wanted to be independent, did he? Well, perhaps that was not such a bad idea. The “General’s letter” (Washington’s) had reportedly also indicated this would be the new direction taken by the Americans.
Between Christmas Day 1775 and Jan. 2, 1776, Moylan had ceased to think of the land and people he fought for as “colonies” and begun to think of them as “states.” The term “state” has implications of national sovereignty. Moylan evidently understood the term thus, because he mentions the “United States” in the context of wishing to treat with Spain, a foreign nation. That is the action of an independent entity, not a band of rebels within a country. No longer were the Americans colonists trying to win concessions from their ruler. They were fighting for their national independence.
“Here, on January 2, 1776, seven months before the Declaration of Independence and a week before the publication of [Thomas] 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. . .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). . .
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.”
This is speculation, of course. As I said above, however, the most important thing is that Moylan first said, or rather wrote, “United States of America.” A soldier, merchant, immigrant, patriot, public servant. . .Stephen Moylan played an important role in helping Washington during the Revolution and he must be credited with titling this great nation of ours the “United States of America.” Names have power—they shape identities. America can only succeed so long as it is united and sees itself as a unique nation, sovereign, not a mere member of a global cohort. As Americans suffer a crisis of identity under an oppressive government once again, perhaps it is the perfect time to rediscover the forgotten American hero, Stephen Moylan.
(Image of Moylan’s letter courtesy of New-York Historical Society.)
I recall hearing that the country was known as “these United States” in the early years, a designation changed to “the United States” after the Civil War, in an effort to reunify the country. I sometimes wish we were still more a nation of states. Interesting piece.