Stephen Moylan had a mostly distinguished career in the American Revolution. But it wasn’t his sword that kept him in the history books. It was his way with words. For Stephen Moylan, an aide-de-camp to George Washington, gets credit as the first to write the words, “United States of America.”
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Moylan was recognized for coining the country’s name. He may not even have realized he did it.
He suffered several setbacks during the war and faced criticism and court martial. But each time he bounced back and acquitted himself honorably.
Moylan was born around 1737 in Cork, Ireland, to a large and devout Catholic family. His father, John, was a businessman, his mother, Ann Doran. Two sisters took vows as Ursuline nuns and his brother Francis was consecrated Bishop of Kerry.
The laws then forbade educating Catholics, so his parents smuggled him out of the country to get an education.
Some say he was educated in Paris, others say Lisbon or Spain. He did acquire social graces as well as good penmanship. Writing was an important skill for an 18th century businessman and one that would give Stephen Moylan distinction as the first to write “United States of America.”
His father, John Moylan, apparently suffered financial reverses. In his will, dated June 1797, he wrote,
I lament that I have it not in my power to leave my children in better circumstances, but my own misfortunes were great and heavy for a number of years, and it was only within these last three years that it pleased God to give me some little success.
Young Stephen Moylan lived in Lisbon for three years, working in the family shipping business. In 1767, he immigrated to Philadelphia, a city more tolerant of Roman Catholics than, say, Boston.
He prospered there in merchant shipping and moved in elite social circles. Moylan was a clotheshorse with a pleasant manner that won him friends. He belonged to the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club, and in 1771 won election as the first president of The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a fraternal and charitable society.
As dissatisfaction with Britain grew, Moylan sided with the patriots. When war broke out, his friend John Dickinson wrote a letter of introduction to George Washington. Dated July 25, 1775, Dickinson wrote that Moylan was “much esteemed” in Philadelphia.
Washington, then quartered in Cambridge, struggled to make an army of his untrained, undisciplined and undersupplied men. He must have been delighted when an educated gentleman with logistics experience offered his services.
Washington appointed him muster-master general, a job that involved tracking personnel, finances and logistics. He then ordered Moylan to work with Col. John Glover and his Marblehead regiment to outfit vessels so they could seize unarmed enemy supply ships. The nine vessels they fitted out, starting with Hannah, began the Navy of the United Colonies.
The Brothers Moylan
Stephen Moylan also had three brothers who also served the American side in the Revolution.
James worked for the American cause in France and obtained a French vessel, renamed the Bon Homme Richard, for John Paul Jones.
John served as Clothier General of the Continental Army in Morristown, N.J.
Jasper served as an ensign in the Philadelphia militia.
Stephen Moylan helped Washington with his paperwork, and on March 7, 1776 Washington named him aide-de-camp and gave him the rank of lieutenant colonel. Two months later, Moylan replaced Thomas Mifflin as quartermaster general. It didn’t go well, as Moylan faced enormous challenges and he wasn’t a terrific administrator.
After the British evacuated Boston, Washington marched his men to New York. There the British routed them. Moylan’s job was to transport materiel and supplies as the army fled, and he left quite a lot behind. Even Washington pointed a finger at him. The commander in chief blamed the loss of supplies on “a defect in the department of the Quarter Master Genls not providing Teams enough.”
In September 1776, Moylan resigned, but stayed on as a volunteer aide to Washington.
More Ups and Downs
He then redeemed himself with dedicated service to the cause and won promotion to colonel. In January 1777 he was given command of a dragoon regiment.
Things went well for his unit, foraging, scouting and doing picket duty.
Then in September of that year, Casimir Pulaski took charge of the cavalry. Moylan couldn’t stand Pulaski’s overbearing manner, and they clashed.
Change of Clothes
Moylan’s dandyism got him into a bit of trouble with Washington, too. His unit had chosen impressive red coats faced with blue for its uniform, probably influenced by their colonel.
Washington was horrified when he found out. On May 12, 1777, he wrote to Moylan saying a party of his regiment had arrived at headquarters in Morristown, N.J. Their similarity to the British uniforms meant they alarmed the inhabitants of the countryside. They might have gotten shot at, Washington wrote.
“I therefore desire that you will immediately fall upon means for having the colour of the Coats changed, which may be done by dipping into that kind of dye that is most proper to put upon Red. I care not what it is, so that the present Colour be changed.” Moylan went for a green coat faced with red.
Military Career Winds Down
After an altercation with one of Pulaski’s officers, Pulaski brought charges against Moylan. A court martial then found him innocent.
Pulaski resigned in March 1778, and Moylan took over the cavalry. He led his men well during the Monmouth campaign that summer.
On Sept. 12, 1778, he married Mary Ricketts Van Horne, one of five “handsome and well-bred” daughters of a wealthy New Jersey judge named Philip Van Horne. Moylan continued to serve, and was present at the surrender at Yorktown. After the war he won a brevet promotion to brigadier general.
Stephen Moylan After the War
Moylan returned to the Philadelphia area, prospered in business and involved himself in civic affairs. The Friendly Sons of St Patrick elected him president again.
He and Mary had two boys and two girls, but only the girls, Elizabeth Catherine and Maria, survived to adulthood. He stayed friendly with Washington, once paying him a visit at Mount Vernon. As president,
Washington appointed him commissioner of loans in Philadelphia in 1793.
He died in Philadelphia on April 11, 1811, and is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard.
Stephen Moylan Pens “United States of America”
In 1998, New York Times columnist William Safire set himself to the task of finding out who named the United States of America. Safire, with scholarly help, concluded Stephen Moylan had done it.
Moylan wrote “United States of America” while serving as an aide to Washington, then headquartered in Cambridge. That was six months before the words appeared in the Declaration of Independence.
On Jan. 1, 1776, Washington paraded the newly reorganized Continental Army in Charlestown, now Somerville. He raised the first American flag, called the Grand Union Flag, on Prospect Hill. It had 13 stripes, though it didn’t have stars yet – just the crosses of England and Scotland in the canton. Some people call that New Year’s Day flag-raising the first real Declaration of Independence.
The next day, Moylan wrote a letter to his friend Joseph Reed. He thought the colonies could use an ambassador to Spain. He knew the country and thought he could do the job. And so he wrote to Reed in Philadelphia.
“I should like vastly to go with full and ample powers from the United States of America to Spain.”
No one has found an earlier reference to those four words. Washington and others may have used the expression in conversation.
Still, Stephen Moylan was, apparently, the first.
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Images: Friendly Sons of St. Patrick medal By Daly, Thomas A – Internet Archive identifier, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99181649. Van Horne House By Zeete – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66486694. Model of Hannah By Sturmvogel 66 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17835548. Grand Union Flag By Makaristos – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4988150. Stephen Moylan, light dragoon, from Stephen Moylan by Martin I.J. Griffin via Internet Archive. This story updated in 2023.