What's in a Name
The most popular presidential name (six U.S. presidents in total) is James, followed closely by William and John (four each).
What's in a Name
The signers of the Declaration of Independence exhibited two strong name fashions of the time: Biblical (three Benjamins, five Johns, three Samuels, six Thomases, two Jameses, and one each of Joseph and Josiah) and British royalty (six Georges, six Williams, two Richards, and one each of Charles and Edward).
It was the fashion in England to name children after historical figures and leaders, so it only stood to reason that the early American settlers would follow it as well. In time, of course, new parents here came to choose these classic names not for their connection to Mother England as much as to honor the founders of this country. John, a very popular name both here and abroad, could be inspired by John Cabot, who explored the Northeast coast to Delaware soon after Columbus landed, or John Winthrop, who established Boston, or after John Carver or John Alden, two other noted Americans of the day.
The other strong name fashion in place during the time of the early settlers was to choose names from the Bible, which added such classic names to the American name pool as:
- Abigail: This Old Testament name (it means “my father is joyful”), was borne by the wife of David and by the wife of President John Adams. This name is coming back into style today in a big way, ranking 25th on the most popular names list in 1998.
- Martha: This New Testament name was borne by a woman who spends more time getting dinner ready than paying attention to Jesus, her dinner guest, who is instead entertained by her sister, Mary. While this name was popular in many parts of the world, it had its longest run at fame in the U.S., thanks to Martha Washington, the first First Lady.
- James: This English variation of Jacob has been borne by no less than five U.S. presidents: Buchanan, Garfield, Madison, Polk, and Carter.
- Samuel: It means “told by God,” appropriately so, as Samuel was a prophet and judge in early Israel. Samuel Adams was a member of the First Continental Congress, which in 1774 drafted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, a precursor to the Declaration of Independence.
The use of surnames as first names is growing in popularity today, and there are certainly trendy names being added to this particular pool, but the name fashion itself is hardly a new one. According to Colonial Homes magazine, it was a popular custom among the early settlers of Virginia and New England, who primarily used it for naming boys.
Other American classics inspired by the men and women who founded our country include:
- Alexander: This Greek name, which means “man's defender,” was borne most notably by statesman Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and ill-fated duelist.
- Benjamin: In the Old Testament, Benjamin was the younger son of Jacob and Rachel. The name means “son of the right hand.” Most famously borne by Benjamin Franklin, the noted early American diplomat, publisher, scientist, and inventor.
- Dolly: It's a pet name derived from Dorothy (“gift of God”) and borne by Dolly Madison, the wife of President James Madison.
- George: This quintessentially English name is actually Greek and means “farmer.” Borne by many Americans both centuries ago and now, and most famously during Revolutionary War times by George Washington.
- Jonathan: Jonathan Edwards, American-born religious leader, pastored a church in Northampton, Massachusetts, and became famous for his “fire-and-brimstone” sermons.
- Thomas: This biblical name comes from the Aramaic for “twins.” Thomas Jefferson is probably the most famous American to bear this name; Thomas Hooker was a reverend who led a group of settlers to Connecticut to found Hartford. Another Thomas, Thomas Paine, was the famous pamphleteer of the period who wrote Common Sense and The Age of Reason, which reflected the democratic ideology that shaped America.