When Hillary Clinton gave the commencement speech at her alma mater Wellesley College on May 26, her message of “Onward Together” reflected that of another Wellesley icon, Katharine Lee Bates, the woman who wrote the words to America the Beautiful. I believe that the story of Bates and her song can inspire, inform and unite us in these harsh and polarizing times.
The words of the song came to Bates as she surveyed the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains from the broad summit of Colorado’s Pike’s Peak on July 22, 1893. She put them to paper upon returning to her hotel room in Colorado Springs that evening. They have inspired Americans as diverse as singer Ray Charles (who campaigned to make the song America’s national anthem) and Rush Limbaugh (who seems unaware of Bates’ message).
Bates loved her country. But she was no American xenophobe, no “America First” super patriot. Her lines, “Oh beautiful for heroes proved/In liberating strife/Who more than self their country loved/And mercy more than life!” are a tribute to Union soldiers who fought to end what she called “the shame of the slave” in the Civil War, which raged during the early years of her childhood. But they were not a shout out to combat. Indeed, she spoke in opposition to the Spanish American War and declared herself a pacifist after the debacle of World War I.
She was a Christian (and the daughter of a Congregationalist minister), but one who stood for separation of church and state, respected all creeds and refused to sign a declaration of Christian faith when required to do so as a Wellesley professor. Her successful protest brought an end to the requirement.
She expressed pride that her hometown, the fishing village of Falmouth, Massachusetts, “practiced a neighborly socialism without ever hearing the term.” She was a suffragist, and a lesbian, who lived with her partner, a fellow Wellesley professor, long before such unions were culturally affirmed. She stopped wearing fur coats to protest the cruelty of steel traps. She opposed capital punishment, arguing that it would be better “to convert criminals into men instead of corpses.”
Born in 1859, Bates graduated from Wellesley in 1880, and taught there for 40 years after joining the faculty in 1885. In June of 1893, she and her lifelong partner, economist Katharine Coman, a champion of workers’ rights, rode the rails west to teach summer school classes at Colorado College. On the way, they marveled at thundering Niagara Falls, the futurist World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the waving wheat fields of the Midwest.
Bates was awed by the beauty of America, but disappointed that our cities, institutions and treatment of each other failed to match the lovely landscape surrounding us. She was deeply troubled by “the shame of the Indian,” that had extirpated Native Americans or ejected them from their lands.
She sent the first draft of her poem, America the Beautiful (later set to music) to two friends with a letter expressing her wish to see America be good and just rather than simply “great”— “Till souls wax fair as earth and air...” she wrote, suggesting that if America was rich materially but not in “brotherhood,” it would surely go the way of the British empire and others. Aware of the inequity of the so-called “Gilded Age,” she wrote, “America! America! /God shed his grace on thee/Till selfish gain no longer stain/The banner of the free.”
In the second draft of the poem, written in 1904, Bates made clear her understanding that the country she loved had not yet lived up to its ideals— “America! America! /God mend thine every flaw/Confirm they soul in self-control…”
“America, America, may God thy Gold refine,” she wrote in that draft. This is true love of country, not the false patriotism of “America, love it or leave it!” or “America, right or wrong.” It asks us to view greatness differently, to see wealth as more than money, and to imagine a country where fairness, brotherhood and mercy match the glories of our mountains, fields and oceans.
“It is a powerful ideal of a country with a mission to carry out the promise of its founders,” writes Bates’ biographer Lynn Sherr. It is “about dreams of peace and equality, not the triumph of conquest.”
Bates did not see beauty everywhere. When she wrote the lines, “Oh beautiful for patriot dream/That sees beyond the years/Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears,” she imagined a future where all Americans lived in beautiful surroundings. She had written a children’s book decrying the “the wretched, troublous life” in America’s sweatshops with “reeking walls and poisonous stench.” “Against the smoke-stained, sin-stained city of the day,” she proclaimed, “the possibility of some spiritual invention that would give us cities that were all beautiful.”
I dream like Katharine Lee Bates—of a beautiful America—from sea to shining sea.
Of cut-off Appalachian mountaintops restored to their original glory by former coal miners, given meaningful work by a wise nation.
Of hollowed rural towns revitalized by young people practicing small-scale, sustainable agriculture, supported by the monies that now flow into corporate agribusiness.
Of shuttered factories in small rust belt cities turning out windmills and solar panels and batteries.
Of restored soils and wetlands.
Of new parks and green spaces, widely accessible.
Of cities designed for human connection instead of automobiles, with architecture that invites us to come together.
Of healing between urban and rural, and respect toward all.
Of clean rivers, clear lakes and fresh air.
Of bike- and walkways connecting all our towns and offering healthy, exhilarating ways to experience nature and the out-of-doors.
Of dying cities reborn and flourishing, with vast public gardens and farms, and bustling community-based cooperatives.
And with brotherhood (and sisterhood) to match our newfound beauty.
I want America to be just as beautiful and nourishing for those who like Langston Hughes, can rightly say, “America was never America to me.”
And, in the spirit of the vacation season now rapidly approaching, I want Americans to be able to slow down and relax and take time to enjoy it all.
I want the dream of Katharine Lee Bates and the vision of her wonderful song to be the real America. I want to make America beautiful again, her beauty “undimmed by human tears,” and untarnished by inequality and despair. In the wake of our latest Memorial Day, after we honored the flag and those who died for it, let us all recommit to mending America’s flaws—till selfish gains no longer stain the banner of the free.