Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thomas Paine named the United States?? or coined the phrase??

The claim is frequently made that Thomas Paine
"named" the United States in his pamphlet Crisis 2, entitled

To Lord Howe
January 13, 1777

An alert correspondent to my list and blog -- a gentleman named
Ron Matthews -- noted recently
that the claim seems to be inflated and/or erroneous, easily
disproved by reference to the title of the Declaration of Independence.

The factoid (erroneous or not) seems to trace back to John Remsburg's
THOMAS PAINE - APOSTLE OF LIBERTY, p. 195 (available free online at google
books) and has been carried forward by the now nearly defunct
Thomas Paine National Historical Association and others.

Two questions -- is anyone aware of an earlier appearance of
the claim? Any insights on this? The fact that the colonies were still
states at the time of the Declaration is certainly true, but by the same
token, they were also when Paine wrote his second Crisis. Paine made
reference to a single nation in his Crisis, where the Declaration was
written to represent thirteen individual states? Does this matter? Is
it a mere quibble? Does an inflated Paine claim need to be dismissed?


  1. I have also been interested in the origins of the reference to the new nation as the "United States of America." One historian, E.C. Burnett, wrote in some detail on the evolution of the term "colony" into "state" as the basis for the eventual language that appears in the Declaration of Independence. Here is a link to the first page of a paper he wrote on the subject (one must pay to gain access to the full article):

    What is of equal importance, in my view, is the original references to the "states" in the plural with the initial capitalization as follows: "the united States of America are..." This is a clear indication that the leaders of the states still considered themselves to be citizens, first, of their individual state, and, second, of the new nation. Although the word "united" begins to be capitalized soon after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the plural reference remains until after the end of the war between the states (or civil war, as one prefers).

    An interesting footnote to this evolution is that as late as the 1940s, Winston Churchill was quotes as referring to the United States in the plural.

    The question remains, to what extent the original thirteen states (and Texas) retain sovereignty. Their origins predate the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, with Texas having been established as a sovereign republic before voluntarily joining the Union. For the remainder of the states, the situation is less ambiguous because the original states relinquished to the federal government claims to additional territory. And, it was under federal law that territory was added to the public domain by purchase or military conquest (e.g., from Spain and Mexico).

    Paine seems to be one of the first who was willing to put his life on the line by actually referring in writing to the rebellious colonies as a new country. But, to suggest he was the first to coin the term is to ignore the way the political dialogue gradually then rapidly expanded on behalf of a united action against British tyranny. And, the term "American" was already well-established in everyday use, particularly by British authorities (although the colonials are interchangeably referred to by where they resided).

  2. Thomas Paine's legitimate achievements stand on their own, with no need of exagerration or inflation. Seems to me that the claim is exaggerated and can't be supported.

  3. Robert Morrell -- TPS UKJanuary 19, 2010 at 2:20 PM

    I have come across variations of the name earlier than Crisis 2, but Paine's name was in circulation and even his political foes, of which he had many, would have known of his suffestion before the Crisis appeared. Moreover, Paine had an input into the Declaration of Independence. The objection strikes me more of a quibble than anything else.

  4. Look at the dates. If he wrote the Declaration of Independence then he was the first to write that statement. If he did not write the Declaration, then he was not the first to write it. Sherwood. PS. I think be wrote it.

  5. It's pure speculation as to whether Thomas Paine had any involvement scripting the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence clearly came before Thomas Paine's Crisis 2 pamphlet.

  6. Robert Morrell, what proof is there that Paine had ANYTHING to do with the Declaration? Can you back that statement up??

  7. Yes, the term “United States of America” appears for the first time in the Declaration of Independence. So why does Paine get this weird credit? It is just one of those things that keeps getting repeated, but I don’t think it derives from the very separate claim that Paine co-authored the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. I wrote recently to someone that I suspect that it originally came from a misreading of something Moncure Conway wrote in his great 1892 biography (in the chapter, “The Muzzled Ox”):

    [Before the Declaration, Paine minted the phrases “Free and Independent States of America,” and “The Glorious Union.” In his second Crisis dated January 13, 1777, he says to Lord Howe: “’The UNITED STATES of AMERICA’ will sound as pompously in the world or in history as ‘the kingdom of Great Britain.’”]

    Conway is referring to the audaciousness of the claim rather than the coining of the phrase. (What’s interesting is that it is so much more true--for better or worse--today than in Conway’s time.) As to who was the first to read Conway wrong, I’m not sure.

    Mariam Touba
    Reference Librarian
    New-York Historical Society

  8. Robert Morrell -- TPS UKJanuary 28, 2010 at 1:30 PM

    Reply to JohnSH:

    Paine was closely involved in the promotion of American independence as an associate/friend of Jefferson, and there is a clause deleted from the Declaration of Independence that would have banned slavery, something that would have radically changed the United State's subsequent history for the good. The wording of the clause mirrors Paine's sentiment too closely for it to be dismissed easily. Paine, as is widely kmown, was a close associate of Jefferson and they had an interchange of opinions. Had Paine's personal papers not been destroyed in a fire, I suspect the whole issue and others, would have been resolved. the slavery clause is discussed at dome length by the late Joseph Lewish in his book,Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence (New York, Freethought Press Association, 1947. pp.138-149). I would not by any means go as far as Lewis did in claiming what his book's title claims, but he makes out a good case for Paine's involvement in the compilation of the document.

  9. Common Sense (1776) concludes with the following:
    "Let the names of Whig and Tory be extinct; and let none other be heard among us, than those of a good citizen, an open and resolute friend, and a virtuous supporter of the RIGHTS of MANKIND, and of the FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES OF AMERICA."
    This does not provide a "smoking gun" for the claim. Given the best-selling status and influence of this pamphlet on the cause of liberty, it is conceivable that his phrasing was influential, the omission of the "united" modifier notwithstanding. Still, the claim is not substantiated to my satisfaction.

  10. Sorry this took so long to post, but the claim is actually based on a comment in The American Crisis published January 13, 1777.

  11. Here is the precise quotation: "'The UNITED STATES of AMERICA,' will sound as pompously in the world or in history, as "the kingdom of Great Britain"; the character of General Washington will fill a page with as much lustre as that of Lord Howe: and the Congress have as much right to command the king and Parliament in London to desist from legislation, as they or you have to command the Congress."

  12.,+1776&source=bl&ots=-P8_LSgCs2&sig=aQYUXa4EZP5X5VZslzsgfvF83vQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiLp52XlITTAhVKySYKHTzAC7gQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=Republicus%20on%20June%2029%2C%201776&f=false p 1132 Republicus is Thomas Paine.

    1. Thanks for this great post. I can't recall if I've ever seen this before and it's intersting that the collection in which it appears here doesn't appear give a citation. Doubtless it was a newspaper letter. Wonder where it first appeared? Again, thanks for a great link.