The buckboard finally reached the top of Pikes Peak on July 22, 1893. In the half hour before starting down, Katherine Lee Bates surveyed the breathtaking scene and penned the opening words of a poem: "O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain; for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!" In the evening dusk, the young English teacher from Wellesley College returned to her room at the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs and completed the poem.
Within the decade, a national contest for music to turn the poem "America the Beautiful" into a song produced more than 60 entries. The final choice, the hymn tune "Materna," produced a harmonious result that leaped into public acceptance during World War I.
I have sung this song as an alternate to the National Anthem several times. As America looks forward to the 21st Century, I propose that it is time to choose a national anthem more suited to our future than any other patriotic song of our past.
Why does this song capture the hearts of those who sing and listen? First, this is a rhyme about the natural beauty of America. Bates was acquainted with the "shining sea" from her girlhood home in the coastal town of Falmouth, Mass. Never having traveled west before, she was fascinated by the variety and beauty of America as she viewed it by train on her trip to Colorado. Her descriptions resonate with all those who today realize that it takes hard work to preserve our environment.
But "America the Beautiful" is much more than a praise of nature. The song's realism grows out of Bates' firsthand knowledge of the battles to improve the conditions of workers in sweatshops in New England. 1993 is not unlike 1893. As the depression of '93 ravaged America, Bates wrote that winter in her poem, "Year of the Vision," of "hunger-smitten homes." She recognized that America's wealth needed to be purified--"May God thy gold refine". Aware of her position of advantage at an excellent liberal arts college for women, she was an advocate of noblesse oblige-- the obligation of those to whom much had been given. She captures this sentiment in stanza three: "Till all success be nobleness."
In conclusion, the patriotism of which Bates speaks is why many wish this song was our national anthem today. This poem is no self-congratulatory tribute to America. Rather, balanced with every recitation of blessing is a reciprocal challenge. Today it is routine to hear politicians say: "God bless America." Bates, in the spirit of her hero Abraham Lincoln, balances every gift with a response. In Verse 1, Bates balances "God shed his grace on thee" with a challenge: "And crown thy good with brotherhood." In Verse 2, Bates concludes the narration of American pilgrim feet with a summons: "God mend thine every flaw, confirm they soul in self-control, thy liberty in law." In Verse 3, Bates invites all who sing her poem to be people "who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life."
We need a national anthem for the next 100 years. Anniversaries have meaning only if they remember the past as a means of pointing to the future. It is time to choose an anthem that both praises and challenges America.