Katherine Lee Bates, Samuel A. Ward

Katherine Lee Bates and Samuel A. Ward worked independently to provide the words and music of "America the Beautiful."

The national anthem has taken on the connotation of a military salute for a nation that depends on its military. The men and women who serve are heroes and patriots, far more than most of us can aspire to be.

“The Star Spangled Banner”  now divides Americans more than it unites us, a poor fit with our pledge to be one nation under God, indivisible. Government cannot mandate unity. You choose to be in it, or you’re not.

If there’s something better that comes after this, I hope it's that the nation’s goodness quiets the racket of divisiveness. 

“America The Beautiful” fits that bill. It's one of my favorite songs, period. I can't help but put myself on top of the world in the clouds over Colorado Springs.

“O beautiful for spacious skies

For amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain.”

America’s song is Colorado’s song.

Most of us know Katharine Lee Bates was inspired by the vista from atop Pikes Peak. America's story is her story, about what we do with the gift of an America we share.

Before she wrote her iconic song, Bates popularized Mrs. Claus and encouraged an unknown Robert Frost to stay at it. She was known to her friends as a wit, who believed the common good takes a community, the same idea that caused the colonies to unite into states.

“O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!”

The daughter of a minister who died when she was an infant, her mother took in washing and sewing and sold asparagus from her garden. Kate and her three brothers took odd jobs to help support the family in the seaport town of Falmouth, Massachusetts. She was taught as a child by her educated mother and aunt, and went on to graduate in the second class at Wellesley College. 

In 1893, Bates took leave as head of the English Department at Wellesley to teach a summer course at Colorado College.

She hooked ride up Pikes Peak, though they abandoned the prairie schooner and rode the mules to the top. 

“America! America!

God mend thine every flaw

Confirm thy soul in self-control

Thy liberty in law!”

The images of her trip across America to Colorado live in her song: the alabaster buildings of Chicago, the amber waves of grain across the fruited plains of Kansas, the purple mountains majesty as the Front Range neared, the awe of being here that only the dreamer, the schemer and the vagabond feel.

If you’ve imagined Kate spontaneously uttering her words from the windswept mountaintop; not so much. Back in her room at the original Antlers Hotel (it burned down in 1898), she scribbled out the first draft of history and polished it for years.

She published it in The Congregationalist, a religious magazine, two years later. It caught on -- went viral, you might say. Scholars surmise Kate was a lesbian, living 25 years with acclaimed Wellesley professor, Katharine Coman, who died of breast cancer 14 years ahead of Bates. 

“O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!”

Bates guessed the attachment to her song was because "Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood."

The Western Conservative summit shares a fondness, borrowing "America! America! God Shed His Grace on Thee" as the tagline of this year's virtual show Oct. 10. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang it at Donald Trump's inauguration.

The music was written by an organist who sold sheet music, Samuel A. Ward. In 1910, seven years after his death, his publisher repurposed Ward’s 1882 hymn “Materna” to serve an American masterpiece he never knew.

America! America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine!

The title "national anthem" was issued by executive order from President Woodrow Wilson, a segregationist who spoke approvingly of the Ku Klux Klan. He chose the "Star Spangled Banner" as the nation marched toward war. Congress followed suit in 1931, even though critics called it an old drinking song.

Francis Scott Key, a Baltimore lawyer, wrote it during War of 1812, as the British shelled Fort McHenry. Francis, who went by Frank, watched from aboard a British ship, there to negotiate the release of a civilian taken prisoner. 

He borrowed the melody of, as mentioned, a popular drinking song that originated at a London gentleman’s club. The man who penned the "land of the free" was the scion of a wealthy slave-holding plantation family in Maryland. As district attorney later on, he pursued and prosecuted abolitionists, once starting a local race riot.

O beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam

Undimmed by human tears!

War is a necessary defense against our enemies, but our nation's greatest power is our beautiful pride. That's why our enemies attack it, aided by unwitting, meme-loving accomplices.

Kate knew a country healing from the true ugliness of civil war. Yet, in every stanza she speaks of our great gifts as Americans, then issues a challenge to live up to our blessings.

We've saluted bombs bursting in air long enough. It's time to crown our good.

“America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!”

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