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The Fourth's other spirit: crowning its good with charity

The patriotic celebrations of the Fourth of July throughout American history have gone back and forth between congratulation and challenge. The heaviest weight in recent years has come down on the side of congratulation. Only occasionally have we heard reciprocity between self-congratulation and self-examination. But this has not always been true.

Katharine Lee Bates, a young English professor from Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, traveled by prairie wagon to the top of Pikes Peak on July 22, 1893. In the half hour before starting down, she surveyed the breathtaking scene and penned the opening words of a poem.

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

In the evening dusk, she went back to her room at the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs and finished the poem.

The original four-stanza version of "America the Beautiful" was first printed 111 years ago on July 4, 1895. Set to music, the song soared into public popularity during World War I.

"America the Beautiful" commends itself as a national anthem for the 21st century because of the kind of patriotism it evokes. Each reminder of past blessing is balanced by a challenge of responsibility for the present.

First, the anthem reminds us of the mutuality of gift and responsibility. In the first stanza, Bates balances God shed his grace on thee, with a challenge, And crown thy good with brotherhood. Bates crafted her poem in the midst of the depression of 1893. The poem's realism grew out of her firsthand knowledge of and involvement in the battles to improve the conditions of workers in sweatshops in New England.

Stanza 2 maintains the equilibrium between the recounting of a past, pilgrim feet who a thoroughfare of freedom beat, with a present summons, God mend thine every flaw.

Today it is routine to hear politicians of all parties conclude political addresses with the declaration "God bless America." I find myself responding in the spirit of John F. Kennedy's reciprocal, "Ask what you can do for your country."

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Katharine Bates was born on the eve of the Civil War and was not quite 6 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The grammar of her patriotic poetry is very much like that of her lifelong hero, Lincoln.

After the grand indicatives of the Second Inaugural Address, focused on judgment for the national sin of slavery, Lincoln concluded with his majestic imperative: With malice toward none; with charity for all.

If "God bless America" is the indicative of today's political speech, we almost never hear the imperative, the contemporary dynamic equivalent of with charity for all.

Finally, Bates balances past heroes ... Who more than self their country loved with a present plea, May God thy gold refine. In her train trip from New England to Colorado, she traveled through Chicago and witnessed there the great World's Fair that celebrated the fruits of the industrial revolution. Although impressed, Bates was passionate in her conviction that America's wealth needed to be purified. Her work in the settlement house movement spurred her critique of the widening gap between rich and poor. In 1904, affected by Theodore Roosevelt's progressive politics, Bates wrote a new stanza, which this time balanced O beautiful for glory tale with a reciprocating challenge, Till selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free! This stanza is never included in contemporary editions of "America the Beautiful."

More than a century later, "America the Beautiful" speaks from sea to shining sea about the reciprocity of affirmation and challenge. It is a model worth employing in our day. Have a challenging Fourth!

Ronald C. White Jr. is the author of "The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words" and "Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural."


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