The Little Known History of “America, the Beautiful”

The song we know as “America the Beautiful” began life as a poem, originally entitled “Pikes Peak.” It was written in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates, a college professor at Wellesley College. When Bates’ poem was first published in 1895 in a special 4th of July periodical, the name was changed to “America.”

Bates was a black woman and a lesbian, two things that were not always tolerated very well as she travelled the country. As she saw more of the United States and occasionally suffered the indignities of prejudice, she updated the poem to reflect her love of country, but also her disappointment in it failing to always live its ideals. The final version of the poem was written in 1911.

Bates’ early version of the poem was put to music, and by 1900, more than 75 versions had been written under various titles. In 1882, Samuel A. Ward wrote the music we are familiar with today, but with completely different lyrics. It wasn’t until after his death in 1903 that Bates’ words were paired with Ward’s music, and re-titled “America, the Beautiful.” The song immediately gained popularity as a church hymn and has remained basically unchanged since.

Most of us learned the lyrics to “America, the Beautiful” when we were kids, but I was interested in the differences between the song lyrics and Bates’ final version of her poem. The poem, while adoring of the country she loved, also voiced Bates’ wish for the United States to live its values, and she asked for God’s help in this endeavor.

This article in National Geographic gives a much more in depth view of Bates’ amazing life. Despite being a black women living in America in the late 1800s, she earned a college degree, travelled the world widely, and became a college professor. Her life is interesting and inspiring.

Here is the final version of Bates’ poem:

America (A Poem for July 4)

(1911 Version)

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Here’s one of the best and most famous versions of Bates’ and Ward’s song:


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