That explains the history of the last part of our country’s name. But what about the first part?
In February of 1776, Thomas Paine wrote of “Free and independent States of America.” The terms “United Colonies,” “United Colonies of America,” “United Colonies of North America,” and also “States,” were used in 1775 and 1776. However, the term “United States of America” was first used in 1776 at Philadelphia in the opening line of the Declaration of Independence, which begins “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America…”
Although Columbus is credited with discovering America, there is ample evidence that he was not the first European to visit our shores. Native Americans, of course, have been in the western hemisphere for at least 20,000 years, and some evidence indicates their presence in one or both of the Americas for 100,000 years or more, although scientific opinion is divided on that. But an astonishing archeological find in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996 indicates caucasians—which originally meant people of the Caucasus Mountains in Europe—were here as early as 7,400 BCE. A skull and nearly complete skeleton of a 5’ 8” man (now called Kennewick Man) discovered there lacks the classical mongoloid characteristics of Native Americans.
As for modern Europeans, the earliest known contact is attributed to Phoenicians; at Mystery Hill, New Hampshire, Phoenicians from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea apparently set up a colony about 480 B.C. which existed for several hundred years. In 551 A.D., Brendan the Bold, an Irish monk, reached the coast of North America; earlier in the same century, another Irishman, St. Finbarr, did likewise. Leif Ericcson, a Viking, sailed to Newfoundland about 1000 A.D. and Vikings lived there for more than a century. In 1171, Prince Madoc of Wales sailed to America. In 1398, Prince Henry Sinclair of Scotland led an expedition to the New World, reaching Nova Scotia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These claims are disputed among archeologists and historians, not completely settled, but it is almost certain that Columbus was not first.
A challenge to this long-accepted view was made by Rodney Broome in The True
Story of How America Got Its Name (MJF Books, 2001). According to Broome, “America” most probably is derived from the name of Richard Amerike, a wealthy merchant of Bristol, England, who helped fund English explorations in the New World/ North American mainland in the late 1400s. Broome cites records which indicate that Bristol ships visited Newfoundland to obtain fish from the Grand Banks at least twelve years before Columbus sailed to the Caribbean. “A letter discovered in 1955 in the Spanish National Archives…established that Bristol merchant ships had sailed to America considerably earlier than Columbus had…” Broome writes (p. 107). The letter was written in Spanish by Johan Day, a Bristol merchant, to Christopher Columbus in 1497 or 1498.
Broome contends that Martin Waldseemueller’s attribution of the name America to Amerigo Vespucci was a mistake which Waldseemueller admitted and tried to correct by removing the name America and reference to Amerigo Vespucci from later editions of his map.
As for Amerike, he sponsored John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to North America, a territory which Cabot (a Venetian mariner whose real name was Giovanni Caboto) knew of even before Columbus made his initial voyage. It was customary for explorers to name new lands after their financial sponsors and Cabot, Broome says, promised Amerike to do just that, although he later reneged on the agreement, calling his discovery Newfoundland. But seafaring people around Bristol, Broome contends, were aware of Amerike’s role in Cabot’s visit to North America before Columbus ever set foot on Hispaniola.
Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean
Thus, Columbus was deprived of the great honor of having his name given to the new world he had discovered. However, in the early days of our nation, there was much sentiment in favor of calling it Columbia in honor of Columbus. A popular song expresses the sentiment: “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” Likewise, Joseph Hopkinson’s poem “Hail, Columbia” names our land as such, and our nation’s capital, Washington, is located not in any state but in the District of Columbia. Cities such as Columbus, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina, honor Columbus, as does the university named Columbia. The first space shuttle was the Columbia.
Here’s a simple way to begin: teach them about our flag. Teach them the history of the flag—how it began by an act of Congress on June 14, 1777, which we now call Flag Day. Teach them the meaning of the flag’s colors. Red stands for the courage, heroism and sacrifices of the 44,000,000 men and women who have served in the armed services of our country since the Revolutionary War, and for the blood shed to preserve our liberty, including 1.4 million who died in combat; white stands for peacefulness and the purity of our high ideals; and blue, the color of the heavens, stands for the justice, strength, loyalty and unity of all our states.
Teach them proper etiquette to show respect for the flag—that you stand up and salute when it passes by in a color guard, as it will do in the Memorial Day Parade next Sunday. Teach them to take off their hat and cross their heart as if they were saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Teach them to hold that position—that display of respect—from the time the flag is six paces away until it is six paces past you.
Teach them it is not improper to burn the flag when you are retiring it from service because it is faded, torn, soiled or otherwise unfit for display. Teach them that the Federal Flag Code calls for a flag to be retired by consigning it to the flames in a reverent ceremony, and explain to them that we veterans object to burning the flag only when it is done in a disrespectful manner of protest or insult to America. Otherwise, cremation is the proper way to end the life of a flag.
Teach your children well, ladies and gentlemen, because in a self-governing society such as ours, the family is the first level of government. Town, state and federal government comes into their lives later. The family is where children first learn the principles of self-government, such as self-reliance and personal responsibility, respect for duly constituted authority, the work ethic, courtesy and public decorum, the value of education and being well-informed, the need for morality and virtuous behavior, volunteerism to help the community, and other elements of healthy social and political living.
Do that and we veterans will say: Thank you. Thank you for doing your part as first-responder parents who are helping to meet a national crisis of people who know less and less about the meaning of America. Thank you for paying your share of the cost of preserving our freedom.
Thank you, Bill, for honoring military veterans as first responders. The purpose of our armed forces, ladies and gentlemen, is to provide national security. Our warriors protect our freedom. We veterans understand that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance against all enemies, whether foreign or domestic, so even though we’re not in the armed forces any more, we’re still on duty. That’s the responsibility of citizenship. Whether you’ve left the service or never were in it, you’re always on duty as an American citizen to preserve freedom and keep our nation strong.
When we were in the military, we reported to the President, who is Commander-in-Chief. However, as civilians, we don’t report to the Commander-in-chief; we report to the Founding Fathers, to the Constitution and to God, who is the source of our liberty, our sovereignty, our equality, our rights, our justice and our human dignity. That is what the Declaration of Independence says this nation is all about and that is what we veterans uphold.
So I ask you today: What are you doing to meet that obligation?
Your children and other young people are going to inherit this great nation someday, but will they keep it? The strength of America resides in citizens who understand and perform their obligations in a country dedicated to a way of life based on self-government, with liberty and justice for all. Young people must understand the sacred debt they owe to the men and women of the armed forces who have kept America safe and strong for them. Many died in defense of liberty; they gave up their tomorrows for your today. Without your understanding and performance of the duties of citizenship, America will weaken and eventually cease to exist. I say that because youth is 20% of the population but 100% of the future. If young people don’t understand what America is all about, soon there won’t be an America.
But whose fault would that be? If young people don’t learn patriotism and the significance of America at home, in school, in church, temple and mosque, and from the words and deeds of public officials and opinion leaders, it is not their fault. It is ours.
(To be concluded)
The New World had no name until 1507. The name “America” stems from a letter Vespucci wrote about the beauty of the New World, which was widely read in Europe. A copy of it came into the hands of a German professor, Martin Waldseemueller, a teacher of geography in a little college at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, in eastern France. In 1507 this letter and others by Vespucci were printed by the college press as an appendix to a new edition of the popular Geography of Ptolemy. The book contained a map which was the first to show the New World surrounded by water and, therefore, definitely not part of Asia. It also contained the suggestion that the newly found land should be named America in honor of Vespucci because Waldseemueller supposed he had discovered it. “The New World having been discovered by Americus Vespucius…I do not see what fairly hinders us from calling it Amerige or America, viz., the land of Americus,” he wrote.
The name “America” was placed on the maps of that time. (Other names given the southern land mass about that time were “New India” and “Land of the Parrots”.) Waldseemueller wrote it across the space for Brazil, but intending it to name all of South America. Waldseemueller’s map was the first to depict the Americas as a separate land mass, not connected to Asia. The northern continent was left unnamed on the map, possibly because it was not yet recognized as a separate continent. However, by 1528 Columbus’s Indies were known as the Americas. (In 2003 the Library of Congress acquired the only known surviving copy of the Waldseemueller map. It is a woodcut print on paper in 12 sections, measuring 8’ x 4.5’ altogether. It has been called America’s “birth certificate” and “baptismal certificate” and is on display at the library.)
Mercator, the Flemish geographer, was the first to use the name for the entire land mass of the Americas, and others followed his lead, extending the name of America to the entire Western Hemisphere. The first geography of America was issued by Enciso at Saragossa, Spain, in 1519. By the 1530s, nearly all of Europe referred to the new land as America. When it became clear there were two continents, they were designated North America and South America.
So it came about that the continents were named by an obscure German professor in a French college for an Italian navigator in the service of the king of Spain.