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The meanings behind the anthems of Fourth of July

On the Fourth of July, Americans will celebrate Independence Day at picnics, concerts, fireworks displays, and gatherings of many kinds, and they almost always sing. “America the Beautiful” will be popular, and so will “Our County, ’Tis of Thee,” and of course the national anthem, “Star-Spangled Banner” (despite its notoriously unsingable tune). The words are so familiar that, really, no one pays attention to their meaning. But read them closely and be surprised how the lyrics describe the meaning of America in three very different ways.

“America the Beautiful” details a remarkable vision of America. Each of the four stanzas starts with “O beautiful.” The first stanza praises the beauty and abundance of the land — “spacious skies,” “amber waves of grain,” “purple mountain majesties,” “fruited plain,” and “shining seas.” All four stanzas appeal to God, asking for grace, brotherhood, perfection, and nobleness. Uniquely among the three songs, “America the Beautiful” invokes a social and moral vision for America. The second stanza lauds New England’s religious founders, the Pilgrims, for beating “a thoroughfare for freedom” “across the wilderness.” However, freedom does not imply license if God will “confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law.” Stanza three praises the self-sacrificing soldiers of the “liberating strife” of the Civil War and asks God to make the nation’s wealth into a “gain divine” and by implication not simply for the sake of greed. The last stanza describes a “patriot dream” of the future: a beautiful America full of gleaming alabaster-white cities “undimmed by human tears.”

Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” in 1893 after an inspirational climb to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Daughter of a Massachusetts Congregational minister, she published it in The Congregationalist magazine, appropriate for such a deeply religious (and, incidentally, very Congregational) poem. Congregationalists were descendants of the Puritans of New England. Puritans sought godly, orderly communities and built those classic New England towns with their white church spires rising over town greens amidst green and plentiful landscapes. Puritan ministers preached self-control and Puritan laws limited liberty for the common good and for God’s glory. Congregationalists like Bates still deeply held to those values. “America the Beautiful” is Puritan and Congregational from beginning to end.

“My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” another religious patriotic song, addresses God in the first line and again in the last stanza. All four stanzas glorify freedom and liberty. God is “author of liberty” and unlike “America” the poem acknowledges no limits on freedom. The land and its beauty are not the focus as they are in “America,” although freedom rings from mountainsides and “thy rocks and rills, / Thy woods and templed hills” call to mind New England’s white-steepled villages nestled amidst a rolling forested landscape. Like “America,” “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” inserts religious filial piety in lines about “Land where my fathers died, / Land of the pilgrims’ pride” and “Our fathers’ God.”

Samuel Francis Smith wrote “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” in 1831 as a student at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Smith was a Baptist, unlike Congregationalist Bates, which makes a huge difference in the lyrics’ sentiment. Baptists were rebels against the Puritan/Congregational New England order, with thoroughly individualistic attitudes about society and religion. Government, society, and the church must just leave people free to act according to conscience. A godly society would come when each individual accepted Jesus. “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” is a Baptist anthem to a country of the free individual.

“Star-Spangled Banner” is a war hymn of patriotic emotions stirred at the sight of the nation’s flag still flying at dawn after an all-night bombardment. The first three of its four stanzas describe scenes of war. Bombs burst and rockets glare. “The foe’s haughty host” replete with “hirelings” and “slaves” washes the soil clean with blood in “the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” The last stanza finally mentions God, who “hath made and preserved” the nation (by war, perhaps?). No stanza actually says anything about the nation itself, whether the land, the cities, or the people, except that they are free and brave.

Francis Scott Key wrote “Star-Spangled Banner” after he witnessed the British attack Fort McHenry in Maryland in 1814. Key was a Maryland lawyer and slaveowner who later defended slavery against attacks by abolitionists. Southerners rarely expressed much of a social vision and as slaveowners certainly looked upon government interference with their freedom of action as a threat to their interests. Unsurprisingly, “Star-Spangled Banner” lacks any vision (or even mention) of American society. For four verses it sings of pride in free Americans, so brave in war, and in their “gallantly streaming” flag.

These three patriotic songs give Americans three ways to sing the meaning of America for this Independence Day, July 4, 2015.

Image credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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