Volume 10, Issue 3
War Hawks, Uncle Sam, and The White House: Tracing the Use of Three Phrases in Early American Newspapers
Donald R. Hickey
Donald R. Hickey, Professor, Department of History, Wayne State College
As a student of the early American republic, I’ve always had a fondness for the period’s newspapers. Newspapers have been published in America since the seventeenth century, and their number steadily rose in the eighteenth century. By 1775 there were 42 newspapers, and by 1789 there were 92. Newspapers continued to proliferate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, so that by the time of the War of 1812 there were nearly 350. Most were weeklies, but 49 were published two or three times a week, and another 25 were dailies published in large cities.
Most newspapers were published by print shops that were typically one- or two-man operations. Circulation rarely exceeded 1,000 copies (although the readership was much larger), and collecting money from advertisers and subscribers was always a challenge. Although the papers were usually just a single folded sheet (making four pages in tabloid format), the press of deadlines meant there was a never-ending search for material to fill space. Publishers routinely borrowed from one another and ran excerpts from the debates in Congress or printed government documents, most of which emanated from the executive branch. The typical newspaper included numerous ads, some editorial content, reports and commentary on public events (particularly wars), long-winded opinion pieces (often in the form of letters to the editor), literary pieces, poetry, humor, and other ephemera.
Newspapers and the War of 1812What fascinated me most about newspapers was how often they delivered an unexpected nugget of information or a colorful and quotable opinion about the events of the day. I used newspapers only occasionally until I wrote my first book in the 1980s, which was on the War of 1812. The last documents that I combed for pertinent information were the leading newspapers of the day, perhaps 25 or 30 in all. Most had been put on microfilm by Readex in the 1950s, and it was pretty easy to borrow the reels through interlibrary loan. The Library of Congress greatly facilitated the process by publishing a superb finding aid in the mid-1980s.
My search of the newspapers uncovered quite a bit of useful material, particularly illuminating quotations that I could use in my book. One of the reviewers took note of this, saying that he expected me “to round up the usual suspects” for my quotations but found instead “thousands of unfamiliar quotations from a host of new witnesses.” This, he concluded, was “refreshing indeed.” Since many of the quotations—which probably numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands—came from newspapers, I took this to be a vindication of the long hours I had put in canvassing them.
The good news for anyone reading the period’s newspapers in the 1980s was that they were loaded with interesting and useful material. The bad news was that it was extremely time-consuming, and there was no easy way to target a particular subject for research unless it was limited to a fairly narrow time frame. This all changed when Readex digitized its newspaper collection between 2004 and 2006 and added a search engine. When I began using the new digital collection, I quickly realized that the online archive was especially useful for tracing the use of words and phrases, and this led to three projects.
The first project focused on the origins and usage of the phrase “War Hawks.” Conventional wisdom held that this term originated on the eve of the War of 1812, coined either by antiwar Republican John Randolph of Roanoke or by anti-war Federalists. However, Scott Sheads, a park ranger at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, recently discovered that the term was used as early as the 1790s. Scott shared his findings with me, and following his lead, I did a thorough search of Readex’s Early American Newspapers to trace the history of the term. I discovered that it first showed in 1792, and thereafter appeared some 350 times before the War of 1812. It appeared mainly in waves and was invariably used by the opposition party whenever it feared that the party in power—the Federalists in the 1790s and the Jeffersonian Republicans thereafter—was contemplating an ill-advised war.
In some ways, the term was unique. Unlike other political terms of the day that carried negative connotations—such as Tory, aristocrat, monocrat, mobocrat, Jacobin, and even democrat (which many considered dangerously close to mob rule)—the term “War Hawk” was not party specific. Both parties freely used the term when they were in opposition and it suited their needs.
The second project centered on the genesis of “Uncle Sam.” In this case, conventional wisdom held that the term originated in late 1812 over confusion of what the initials “U.S.” stood for when stamped on meat packed for the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. Although the term stood for the “United States,” a man who worked for meat packer Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, was supposedly unfamiliar with the abbreviation and asked a fellow employee what it meant. He was told—as a joke—that it stood for “Uncle Sam,” a reference to Wilson, who employed many nieces and nephews and was widely known by this sobriquet. The story made the rounds among Wilson’s workers, some of whom subsequently joined the army. Soon the nickname was used by soldiers to refer to the U.S. government. The story rested mainly on an article published in 1830 by a person who claimed to have witnessed the events at Wilson’s meat packing plant. With this first-hand account as evidence, the story gained wide acceptance, and in 1961 Congress adopted a resolution affirming that the progenitor of the nickname for the U.S. government was “Uncle Sam” Wilson.
I was skeptical of this claim because the initials “U.S.” for the United States were already in rather wide use at the time, and while a child or an immigrant might not know the abbreviation, it was unlikely that anyone else in the nation would be unfamiliar with it. However, at the time the first known reference to “Uncle Sam”—in a broadside evidently published in eastern New York in the spring of 1813—seemed to confirm the time and place of the story. But using Early American Newspapers I discovered two earlier references, one in the Bennington (Vermont) News-Letter in December 1812 and the other in the Geneva (New York) Gazette in January 1813. It seemed to me unlikely that the term could have originated in Troy and spread so quickly to these communities.
Then, in summer 2013, while taking part in a workshop at the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, Matt Brenckle, the Research Historian at the museum, showed me a diary written by Midshipman Isaac Mayo that used the term “Uncle Sam” for the federal government in 1810. This seemed to be conclusive evidence that the nickname was in use, at least in the U.S. Navy, at least two years before Sam Wilson started supplying the army with meat. Hence, Wilson could not have been the inspiration for the name.
A further search of Early American Newspapers turned up some 80 instances when this term was used during the War of 1812. In almost every case, it was used by the anti-war press in New England or New York to show the government or the army in a bad light. Although most people in the North were probably familiar with the term by the end of the war, when Niles’ Register, the leading magazine in the country, reprinted an article using the phrase, the editor felt obliged to explain to his southern and western readers that this was “a cant term in the army for the United States.” It was only after the war that the term shed its negative connotation and was embraced by Jeffersonian Republicans and the broader public.
The White House
The third project was the origins and evolution of the term “White House.” In this case, conventional wisdom held that the label originated after the War of 1812. The British had burned the building during the conflict, and when it was rebuilt after the war, it was whitewashed to cover surviving scorch marks, and this supposedly had produced the term “White House.” Students of the White House knew that the use of this term predated the War of 1812, but they did not know how far back it went or how its use had evolved over time.
Once again, I used Early American Newspapers to find some answers. I discovered that the President’s home was referred to as a “large white house” or similarly as early as 1802, less than 18 months after the capital had been moved from Philadelphia to Washington and John Adams had become the first occupant of the unfinished building. Thereafter, the term periodically showed up in the press and (occasionally) in congressional speeches, gradually evolving from a descriptive label into the modern proper noun, “the White House.” Ironically, the first person to use the term in its purely modern form, at least as far as we know, was the former British minister to Washington, Francis James Jackson, after he had returned to London. In a letter to Federalist Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts in April 1811, Jackson predicted that his successor, Augustus J. Foster, would "act as a sort of political conductor to attract the lightening [sic] that may issue from the Clouds round the Capitol and the White House at Washington."
The term continued to show up during the War of 1812, almost always used by antiwar Federalists or anti-administration Republicans, probably as a way of devaluing President James Madison, who presided over the conflict. The official name of the building was the “President’s house.” The more non-descript “white house” or “White House” seemed less august and took the reputation of the building, and thus its occupant, down a notch.
The term all but disappeared after the war, but it resurfaced in the late 1820s and became more common in the 1830s, when it was used mainly by the opposition Whigs in references to President Andrew Jackson. The term did not shed its negative connotation and come into general usage until the 1860s. By then the official name of the President’s home was the “Executive Mansion,” although by the end of the nineteenth century the term “White House” had clearly bested all rivals in common usage. In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt brought official terminology in line with common usage by issuing an executive order that changed the name of the President’s home to “the White House.” That label has appeared on presidential stationery ever since.
What can we conclude from these research projects?
(1) Newspapers are a wonderful source for tracing the origin, evolution, and context of words and phrases. At least in early American history, they were generally far ahead of books, pamphlets, and even speeches in embracing new terms.
(2) We often get our nicknames from our enemies. Over time many nicknames shed their negative connotation and become neutral or even positive. None of this will come as a surprise to folklorists or others who study the source of names, for they have long known this.
(3) Scholars can certainly benefit from the power and versatility of Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922, but how about the average undergraduate? There is no reason that he or she cannot profit, too. Each student in a class might be charged with coming up with a term that he or she traces through a period of history, exploring its origins, meaning, and context. Then, at the end of the exercise, the students might each spend five minutes or so explaining to the rest of the class what they had discovered. My guess is that this would be an interesting and valuable learning experience for everyone, including the instructor who guides the students.
 Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana, IL, 1989; Bicentennial edition, 2012).
 Library of Congress, Newspapers in Microform: United States, 2 vols. (Washington, DC, 1984).
 Review by Albert T. Klyberg, in New England Quarterly 63 (September 1990): 501.
 See Hickey, “’War Hawks’: Using Newspapers to Trace a Phrase, 1792-1812,” Journal of Military History 78 (April 2014): 725-40.
 See Hickey, “A Note on the Origins of ‘Uncle Sam,’ 1810-1820,” New England Quarterly, forthcoming.
 Isaac Mayo, “Private Journal at Sea From 1809 to 1819,” Samuel Eliot Morison Library, USS Constitution Museum collection, 1488.1 (transcript supplied by Matt Brenckle).
 Niles’ Register 7 (Supplement), 187.
 Hickey, “When Did the White House Become ‘the White House’?” White House History, forthcoming 2016
 Francis James Jackson to Timothy Pickering, April 24, 1811, in Pickering Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA, microfilm edition, reel 29. This letter can also be found, slightly edited, in Henry Adams, ed., Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1801-1815 (Boston, 1877), 382-87. The quotation is on p. 385.