America: What’s in a Name?

2024 is going to be a doozy of a year, politically speaking. The fireworks started at the end of last year when the Colorado Supreme Court kicked Donald Trump off the ballot for the presidential election, and then, just as I was sitting down to write this script, the state of Maine removed Trump from their ballot. Undoubtedly, more states will follow suit, and there will be just as strong a push-back from Trump and his team throughout the months it will take for this election to run its course.

Among other things, Americans this year are going to get buried in commentary on aspects of election law, and even in the political and legal aspects of the Constitution, especially the 14th Amendment. During all of this, political scientists and historians will be called on to comment on the background and specifics of all these things. After all, the actual history and political background of all of these things are bound to be presented in facile ways by party political hacks, the partisan media, and all those shallow “celebrity analysts” who you know I detest.

We decided, therefore, here at the Institute to dedicate this first month of 2024 to shows that address the general theme of “what is America?” Today I’m going to talk about what the name “America” means, where it comes from, and I’m going to address some of the myths surrounding the history of the name. Next week Professor Brian Regal talks about the various origin stories and myths about who “discovered” and who “started” America. Then we have a great, great show with Professor Stephen Hahn about the general Atlantic bias and myth of east-to-west advancement of civilization across the continent that has been so strong in our culture. Our fourth show, “Lies of the Land,” with Dr. Steven Conn, is about the history and myths of rural America. And I return on the last Tuesday of the month to address the “We’re a Republic Not a Democracy” myth than drives historians and political scientists crazy. 

Apologies to our international listeners for all this. I hope that it will be interesting for them too, especially since what will happen during this election year in the United States will have a tremendous impact on the rest of the world.

So, “America: What’s in a Name?” 

I fully expected, when I began research on this, to find out that the standard story of “America” being named after the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, is a myth, or at the very least, over-simplified. Well, it turns out that the Amerigo Vespucci story is basically true. It is, however, slightly more complicated and involved than I knew.

You’ll remember that we did a major show about Christopher Columbus myths in October last year. In essence, we showed that Columbus only discovered a small part of what later became known as the Americas, and that he never reached what is now called North America or any part of what eventually became the United States. Other explorers did reach the main landmasses of the Americas, especially Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine explorer and navigator. He went on two verifiable voyages to the Western Hemisphere, the first for Spain in 1499-1500, and the second in 1501-1502 for Portugal.

Vespucci wasn’t the commander of these expeditions, but he served as a navigator and high-ranking officer on both of them. The first voyage for Spain (1499-1500) landed near modern-day Surinam on the north coast of South American. Part of fleet then went south and east along the coast, eventually reaching what is now Brazil and the mouth of the Amazon river. A major storm to the south forced them to turn around and head back up the South American coast towards Central America and the Caribbean. Before returning to Spain, they stopped on the island of Hispaniola for supplies, then conducted a slave raid on the Bahamas. Taking 232 slaves, they returned to Spain in 1500. Almost everything on these late 15th-century trips involved slaves and slaving.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this first trip, for our purposes, is that, like almost all European explorers in the early voyages (including Columbus), Vespucci thought they had reached Asia.

His second voyage for Portugal (1501-1502) was similar, except that Vespucci’s party was able to explore further down the coast of modern-day Brazil. He took astronomical measurements and made as many careful calculations of the distances they traveled as he could. Many of these measurements and calculations were later shown to be inaccurate and sometimes contradictory, although there’s no evidence that Vespucci was deliberately trying to fool anyone.

The most significant thing about this second trip, however, happened after he returned home to Italy in 1502. He analyzed his maps, charts, measurements, and records from this trip extensively. This deepened his belief (first formed during the trip) that they had not been exploring certain parts of coastal Asia that other European explorers had not seen. They had found a new continent. The clearest and most reliable textual evidence we have of this is in a letter he wrote to one of his patrons, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, in 1502/1503. Vespucci said,

“A few days ago I wrote you at some length about my return from those new regions we searched for and found with the fleet, at the expense and by the command of the most serene King of Portugal, and which can properly be called a ‘New World,’ since our forebears had absolutely no knowledge of it, nor do any of those who are hearing about it today…On 7 August 1501, we dropped our anchor off the shores of that new land, thanking God with solemn prayers and the celebration of the Mass. Once there, we determined that the new land was not an island but a continent…”

— Amerigo Vespucci, Mundus Novus, Letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1502/1503)

Pamphlets supposedly written by Vespucci circulated in Europe in 1503 and 1505, describing the voyages and the places he had seen. The European intellectual world at that time was small enough that almost everyone, from poets to cartographers, was reading a lot of the same things, including these specific pamphlets about this new continent. And I really do mean “poets to cartographers.”

Matthias Ringmann, a German scholar, was the first to use the term “America” in a poem he wrote in 1505 about this new information circulating in European intellectual and scholarly circles. But the most important development in establishing “America” as the name for Atlantic continent was when Martin Waldseemüller published his Universalis Cosmographia in 1507. It was a map of the world, which now included the continent of “America.” The name stuck, and it became the standard descriptor for this continent on European maps. 

Gradually, as the American continent was explored further by Europeans and others, regions were given more specific names, some of which became the names of the countries that later sprung from those regions. Then, of course, the mapping continued and became more accurate. People started gradually referring to “North America” and “South America,” especially after it became clear that those two large land masses were connected only by a small isthmus at what is now the country of Panama.

Naturally, this is why all people who live (or are from) North and South America (and the Caribbean) are known as “Americans” to this day. We’ll do another show later this year on “American: What’s in a Name?” to explain the complications behind this in recent centuries, and the gradual adoption of “American” to refer specifically to people from the United States.

There are other theories about the origins of the name “America,” of course, but they are not generally accepted by experts. One very interesting one is that it’s named after the Amerissque Mountains in what is now Nicaragua. This was propsed in the 1870s by English geologist Thomas Belt, and Jules Marcou (a French-Swiss geologist who spent a great deal of his career in the United States). They argued that “America/Amerrique” in the Mayan language was used commonly enough across Central America and the Caribbean in the 1490s that the Taino and other Native Americans who encountered Columbus during his voyages to the Caribbean would have used it in their communication with him. And, then the term spread to Europe. But scholars generally reject this theory because there is no evidence that Columbus ever used this term. Similarly, an argument was advanced in the early 20th century that America was named after Richard Amerike, a British merchant, trader, ship-owner, and government official in the 15th century. But there no good evidence to support this, and early British maps that allegedly used the term “Americke” no longer exist.

The United States of America

Now that I’ve established the origins and first use of “America” as a geographical term, I’d like to jump ahead a few centuries and talk about the origins of the name “United States of America.” 

As you know, the thirteen colonies that eventually made up the United States gradually became more united in the aftermath of Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War in 1763. (It was part of the larger global conflict known as The Seven Years’ War). Britain increased taxes on the colonies to help pay for that war, and the colonials resented it. 

These colonials started to talk about themselves as “united colonies” and other things as their opposition to British policy grew in the later 1760s and 1770s. By early 1776 “the United States of America” had become as common as the “United Colonies of America.” The first evidence we have of “United States” comes from a letter written by Stephen Moylan, an officer in the Continental Army, and one of George Washington’s crucial aides. In a letter to another aide, Moylan wrote on January 2, 1776, that he would like to go to Spain as a representative “from the United States of America” to ask them for help during the Revolutionary War. Historians don’t think of Moylan as the John the Baptist of the USA because the “United States” term was probably used by many important colonials at the time.

Newspapers such as The Virginia Gazette began referring to the colonies as the “United States of America” fairly frequently from April 1776 onwards. Drafts of “The Articles of Confederation” in June 1776 said “The name of this Confederation shall be ‘The United States of America.’” And, as you no doubt know, Thomas Jefferson’s June 1776 drafts of what would become the Declaration of Independence were headed with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” in all capital letters. And the Second Continental Congress made “United States of America” the official name of the newly-declared nation on the 9th of September 1776.

The older terms of “United Colonies,” “United Colonies of North America,” and even the “United English Colonies of North America” continued to be used in the first few years of the country’s existence. Some official treaties in 1778 referred to the “United States of North America” and similar things, until Congress made “United States of America” official in all government records and paperwork on July 11, 1778. From there, we were off to the races.

As I’ve said earlier, we’re going to do a few shows this year on similar topics, including all the slang that goes with being an American, and how certain virtues have come to be considered “American” (as well as how those have changed over time). Perhaps most importantly in a year when political venom is going to be spat at many groups of people, we’ll talk about what has been considered “un-American” at different points in our history.

I just hope that, in a country not exactly known for peaceful expressions of political disagreement, somehow, there will be no violence.

Talk to you next week.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America

In Amerigo, the award-winning scholar Felipe Fernández-Armesto answers the question “What’s in a name?” by delivering a rousing flesh-and-blood narrative of the life and times of Amerigo Vespucci. Here we meet Amerigo as he really was: a rogue and raconteur who counted Christopher Columbus among his friends and rivals; an amateur sorcerer who attained fame and honor through a series of disastrous failures and equally grand self-reinventions. Filled with well-informed insights and amazing anecdotes, this magisterial and compulsively readable account sweeps readers from Medicean Florence to the Sevillian court of Ferdinand and Isabella, then across the Atlantic of Columbus to the brave New World where fortune favored the bold.

Amerigo Vespucci emerges from these pages as an irresistible avatar for the age of exploration–and as a man of genuine achievement as a voyager and chronicler of discovery. And now, in Amerigo, this mercurial and elusive figure finally has a biography to do full justice to both the man and his remarkable era.

Posted in