How Did ‘American’ Become the Nationality for US Citizens?
A voyage through history for Independence Day.
The name comes from Amerigo Vespucci. King Ferdinand of Spain appointed Vespucci, a Genovese established in Seville, Naval Commissioner. As such, he traveled to what Christopher Columbus thought was India or Indies. (Since Marco Polo, the lands west of Japan and China were called West Indies.) Columbus had set out to find an alternative route to the land of spices and thought he had arrived there on October 12, 1492. Amerigo Vespucci proposed that Columbus had instead reached a new continent.
There are various theories on the name America. One, well-documented, claims the origin is a 1507 planisphere — map of the world — by the German cartographer Martin Waldeseemüller, which shows for the first time the name America stamped over South America.
Waldeseemüller named the New World after his friend Amerigo Vespucci. Waldeseemüller not only named the New world arbitrarily after the Genovese mariner but attributed to him the very discovery of the New World.
Another theory suggests that the name America comes from the dispatches Naval Commissioner Amerigo Vespucci sent from the New World, and King Ferdinand and Court labeled Noticias Americanas, “American News.”
The appellation Indias continued to be used in Spanish for the New World. Britain always used America for their possessions.
The United States of America
When did America become officially an integral part of the United States? It is somewhat of a mystery. Thomas Jefferson introduced the name in the Declaration of Independence: UNITED STATES OF AMERCA.
However, historians found America used in a Philadelphia Gazette, January 1776, attributed to A. Planter. The use of a pen name was widespread for fear of losing one’s head for treason. Suspects for coining United States of America are Thomas Paine, John Adams, the very Thomas Jefferson, or a Virginian A. Platter who was not afraid of decapitation and signed his name. Some even venture a theory attributing the use of America to General George Washington.
Historical dilemmas of this nature must be decided by the National Archives, the authority on American History. The National Archives responded to my inquiry, indicating that the term United States of America was formally used for the first time in the Declaration of Independence, consequently, they recognized Jefferson as the originator.
The 4th of July
The 13 British colonies formally declared independence on July 4, 1776. And set out to solidify words on the battlefield. It took seven years of bloody war, both at home and internationally, before Britain signed the 1783 Treaty of Paris — negotiated by representatives of King George III and the US representatives Benjamin Franklyn, John Adams, and John Jay — recognizing the independent Republic of the United States of America.
The second Treaty of Paris also ended the 20-year British domain over Florida. Britain had invaded the island of Cuba in 1763. Cuba was the gateway to the New World, so Spain traded off the Island for Florida and 4 million pounds. The British had plans to colonize Florida with Protestants from Europe, mostly British and Swiss. The American wars of independence broke out and the Florida colonizing plans were tabled — Brits probably thought the Independence Fever would pass in time. South Florida remained a tropical wilderness under Spanish rule until becoming an American Territory in 1822.
America and the Spanish América do not mean the same. Since Colonial days, the British used America for the colonies. For the Spanish Crown, América encompassed the entirety of the continent. Latin American independence did not alter the differing assignations. For citizens of the new United States, America was their country and American their nationality. For Latin Americans, América continued to be the continent.
For the nationality of citizens of the United States, Spanish has several alternatives. Estadounidense, “native of the United States,” norteamericano, “North American,” which presents the problem of Canadians and Mexicans also being North Americans. And Gringo.
In English, Gringo might have a negative connotation. In Spanish, it simply refers to US nationals and blond foreigners. There are some colorful theories about the origin of Gringo. One has to do with an old principle: No matter what the intentions, the presence of foreign troops in a country is called an invasion and invaders are often asked to leave, peacefully or not. During the American-Mexican War of 1846, Mexican nationals asked American soldiers, uniformed in green, to go home, Green go, pronounced in Spanish, gringo.
Historians discredited the grin-go theory by proposing a musical theory. Mexicans said all American soldiers did was sing, day and night, the same ‘green grow the lilacs,’ which corrupted to Spanish became grin-grow, and eventually grin-go.
Historians love to discredit theories, and the favored mechanism is tracing a predating reference. They found one in Spain, going back to the 1700s. Greek was used for foreigners, and both Spanish and English retained a corroborating expression for incomprehensibility: Sounds Greek to me. Spanish for Greek is griego, and from griego to grigo only one letter stood, and in time grigo morphed into gringo.
American Unofficial Anthem
Katharine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful. She was an author and professor of English literature at Wellesley College, 1885 to 1925. Her America the Beautiful and Other Poems was published in 1911. The music was composed by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. The opening strophe from the 1911 version: “O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain! / America! America! / God shed His grace on thee / And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea!”