THE question has often been asked as to who invented or devised the United States of America. Historians still argue about who coined the name, with Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine among the possibilities, though some say Benjamin Franklin did so while writing anonymously in the Virginia Gazette in early 1776.

Certainly by the Declaration of Independence in July of that year, the United States of America was the name emblazoned across the top of that document which was influenced by Scotland’s Declaration of Independence of 1320.

The founding fathers brought the states together, but the process of wielding together the disparate colonies in America began decades before 1776, and a Scotsman played a role in the process. He may also have theorised the British Empire, but his name is all but forgotten now.

Sir William Keith, who was born in 1669 and died in this week of 1749, was a fascinating individual and lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania at a time when the British Colonies in America were still disparate and self-interested. Before anyone else, Keith wrote about the need for greater co-operation between the colonies, but it should be noted that he did so because it would benefit the “mother state”.

The title of the 1728 work says it all – A Short Discourse on the Present State of the Colonies in America with respect to the Interest of Great Britain.” And remember – that was only 20 or so years after the Act of Union, and just a few years after Keith was suspected of being a Jacobite – confused times. He would go on to tell Britain that it had an empire and advised about how to preserve it.

Keith was born into a prominent north east family who were Episcopalians and supporters of King James VII and II whose throne was usurped in the Revolution of 1688.

There is confusion about his birth date but most historians accept 1669. He was educated at Marischal College, forerunner of Aberdeen University, and graduated in 1686 with an arts degree. When William III (II for Scotland) and Mary came to power two years later, the Keiths sided with the Stuarts and William ended up staying with James VII and II and his court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris.

His exile ended after Queen Anne came to the throne in 1702, and he was appointed as commissioner of supply in Aberdeenshire. Two years later he was arrested on suspicion of treason because of his Jacobite connections, but the case collapsed for lack of evidence. At that time he married a widow, Anne Diggs, and began studying law in London.

In 1713, Keith sought a government appointment in the American colonies and the Tory administration made him surveyor general of the Southern district. When George I came to the throne a year later and after the 1715 Jacobite rising, Keith – whose father was out for James Stuart – was one of the many Tory-appointed officials purged from office.

Nothing daunted, Keith went to the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania and persuaded the state’s founder William Penn to make him lieutenant governor. He returned to London and managed to convince King George to approve his appointment.

Now came Keith’s great work as he set about reforming Pennsylvania’s governance and economy and, working together with other colonial officials, he made peace with the Native Americans surrounding the colonies. He was highly successful in these tasks and also built up his own holdings, developing the state’s first Malthouse and iron foundry, but in 1721 his father died so that he inherited he baronetcy with its title “sir”, but also a huge family debt – and he had borrowed a lot of money to secure his American post.

Benjamin Franklin knew him in the 1720s and wrote of Keith: “He wish’d to please everybody; and, having little to give, he gave expectations. He was otherwise an ingenious sensible man, a pretty good writer, and a good governor for the people ... Several of our best laws were of his planning, and pass’d during his administration.”

Keith’s innovations continued – he organised a local militia, and realising the power of a state lay in its institutions, he founded several. He also developed close links with other colonies.

William Penn’s influential widow, Hannah Penn, took against Keith and organised his removal from office in 1726. Keith promptly stood for election to the state assembly and won, though he stood down to return to London late the following year.

While on board the ship he wrote the aforementioned Short Discourse which warned Britain of the need to nurture the colonies. And, yes, he used the word British in its modern sense – one of the first writers to do so.

He wrote that “every act of a dependent provincial government therefore ought to terminate in the advantage of the mother state, unto it owes its being and by and whom it is protected in all its protected in all its valuable privileges”.

If such a colony did not comply, “it would be much better for the state to be without them.”

Keith had left his wife and children behind as he tried to rid himself of debts by working as a government consultant. He failed, as did his book on the history of Virginia, published in 1738, which some historians see as the first work of theory about the British Empire.

Imprisoned for his debts, Sir William Keith died at the Old Bailey in London on November 18, 1749, 270 years ago tomorrow.