The poet who penned the words of “America the Beautiful,” Katharine Lee Bates, was born into a modest Massachusetts family in 1859, the youngest of five children. Her father died when she was a baby. At that time boys were more likely to get an education than girls, but her brothers worked so she could attend school. At the age of 26, Katharine became a professor of English at Wellesley College. She also taught Shakespeare and wrote poetry.
In June 1893, Katharine boarded a train to teach for a summer at Colorado College. The trip included the glorious Niagara Falls, the World’s Fair in Chicago, amber waves of Kansas grain, and majestic purple mountains in Colorado Springs.
Katharine remembers, “One day, some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top, we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
Like today, America in the late 1800s was politically divided. Issues of land use, immigration, racial tension, and economic inequality split the nation. Though the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, ensured that people could not be denied the right to vote because of their race, women couldn’t vote for another 50 years.
Then came the Panic of 1893 — the depression lasted four years. It hit every sector of the economy: Wall Street brokerage houses collapsed; over 600 banks and 16,000 businesses failed; unemployment reached 20%, and thousands of farmers lost their land.
The political and economic climate was gloomy when Katharine Lee Bates reached the summit of Pikes Peak. Nevertheless, inspired by beauty from the Atlantic to the Rockies, she wrote the first draft of her iconic poem, “America the Beautiful.” She saw her country battered but “undimmed by human tears” and prayed God would “crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”
She wrote about the beauty of the land and brotherly love. She recognized the pilgrims’ march for freedom and patriots’ sacrifice for country. Her poem noted the need for self-control and law: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!” Looking ahead, she saw the need for God’s help and grace: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw … God shed his grace on thee.”
Have things changed since Katharine wrote those prayers? Some cities are gloomy, not gleaming. Our people are divided, freedoms jeopardized, and government bloated. Our national origin is painted as evil, our history distorted, our memorials destroyed; and our three branches of government and founding documents hang in the balance. Indeed, “every flaw” has not been mended.
Yet, whenever we hear chords of “America the Beautiful,” we sing and pray together, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee.” God answers our prayers. America is still beautiful — magnificent in many ways.
Like Katharine Lee Bates, I choose to see beauty in America and honor this great nation. Therefore, in each successive column, I will look at the good we’ve done, the advances we’ve made, and the flaws we’ve mended. I will spotlight the “patriot dream that sees beyond the years” and celebrate what makes America beautiful.