This Day in History: The inspiration for “America the Beautiful”
On this day in 1893, a professor stands atop Pikes Peak in Colorado. She is struck by the beauty around her and is inspired to write a poem. Her poem is later set to music. Today, we all know that song as “America the Beautiful.”
It nearly became America’s national anthem!
The professor was Katharine Lee Bates, daughter of a minister and teacher. Her father unfortunately passed away when she was young, but her mother managed to send Bates to Wellesley College anyway. Bates later became an English teacher and joined the faculty at Wellesley.
During the summer of 1893, Bates obtained a teaching position at Colorado College. Her train ride to the West made a deep impression on her. Once in Colorado, she had the opportunity to visit Pikes Peak along with some of the other teachers. She was overcome by all that she saw. She later wrote: “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”
Later, Bates remarked that “Greatness and goodness are not necessarily synonymous. Rome was great, but she was not good. . . . Unless we are willing to crown our greatness with goodness, and our bounty with brotherhood, our beloved America may go the same way.”
Bates’s poem was published on July 4, 1895, but it was revised after that initial publication when people started setting the poem to music. “When I found that you really wanted to sing it,” Bates remarked, “I rewrote it in some respects to make it a bit more musical.”
Did you know that the lines “And crown thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea” used to be “Till souls wax fair as earth and air, And music-hearted sea”?
The poem was sung to many different tunes for years until, finally, a melody by Samuel Ward stuck.
Interestingly, Bates and Ward never met each other. And neither of them really made any money on the song. Bates did not seek royalties. Instead, the result of their accidental partnership has been a great gift to the country.
Leslie Clay, Sisters in Song: Women Hymn Writers (2013)
Marc Ferris, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem (2014)
Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 Of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories (2003)
Sylvester Baxter, “America the Beautiful,” Journal of Education (Oct. 31, 1918).