“America the Beautiful” was a close contender to be the national anthem. It remains one of the top five patriotic songs that you’ll hear on July 4th. This year it may be sung with special fervor by those who know its back story. The lyrics were written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, who was a professor of English at Wellesley College and a prolific author. She lived for 25 years with her colleague Catherine Coman in what in those days was called a “Boston marriage”—two spinsters sharing a domicile.
After Coman died in 1915, Bates published Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance that celebrated their love and their involvement in the radical and social reform movements of their day. In light of the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the poem and the song “America the Beautiful” takes on fascinating new dimensions. Were Bates and Coman alive today, they would probably take advantage of the court’s decision to publicly seal their marriage.
Bates penned the original poem after visiting Pikes Peak in Colorado, from which she saw the Rocky Mountains in one direction and the Great Plains in the other. She was overcome by the beauty of the landscape as well as a sense of patriotism. As a Christian socialist who was part of Boston’s progressive circles involved with labor rights, urban slums, and women’s suffrage, she was concerned that the United States, in the midst of the Gilded Age’s widening inequality, was becoming an overseas empire.
When she returned to her hotel room, she wrote a letter to friends, observing that “countries such as England failed because, while they may have been ‘great,’ they had not been ‘good.'” She declared, “Unless we are willing to crown our greatness with goodness, and our bounty with brotherhood, our beloved America may go the same way.”
The poem was initially published in 1895 in The Congregationalist to commemorate the Fourth of July. “America the Beautiful” is usually heard as an unalloyed paean to American virtue. Bates certainly was writing a paean, but a close reading of her words makes it clear that she had something more in mind. She wrote:
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
She later revised the passage:
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.
Bates hoped that a progressive movement, inspired by both religious and secular beliefs, could overcome the Gilded Age’s greed. She beseeched God to shed his grace to enable the brotherhood that was possible but not yet realized.
Bates’ views exemplify an often overlooked current in American culture—what might be called “progressive patriotism.” It is the patriotism that cherishes protest and dissent, justice and community, often on behalf of those who have been oppressed or subordinated.
President Barack Obama’s recent eulogy to those killed in Charleston, delivered on the day after the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, was another powerful expression of that current in our culture. Echoing Bates, Obama talked about grace in a redemptive context:
“I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions, ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.”
And then he led the audience in singing “Amazing Grace” which, in that context, can be heard as patriotic hymn as well as a call for reform. It was a profound choice because, as Obama no doubt knew, it was written by William Newton in 1773 to express his yearning to be redeemed for his life as a slave trader. The president seemed to be saying, we’re a society that was built on slavery—but we can be redeemed.
Obama has often expressed sentiments that we call progressive patriotism. For example, in 2008, while running for the president, he spoke to college students in Colorado about national service. Obama, then a Senator from Illinois, said:
“I have no doubt that, in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. Loving your country shouldn’t just mean watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, our country will be stronger.”
Despite the conventional wisdom that patriotism means “my country—right or wrong” and is best displayed by blind flag-waving, to many Americans patriotism means loyalty to a set of principles, and thus requires dissent and criticism when those in power violate those standards. Progressives understand that people can disagree with their government and still love their country and its ideals. As Martin Luther King said in a speech during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
Indeed, throughout U.S. history, many American radicals and progressive reformers have proudly asserted their patriotism. To them, America stood for basic democratic values — economic and social equality, mass participation in politics, free speech and civil liberties, elimination of the second-class citizenship of women and racial minorities, a welcome mat for the world’s oppressed people. The reality of corporate power, right-wing xenophobia, and social injustice only fueled progressives’ allegiance to these principles and the struggle to achieve them.
Most Americans are unaware that much of our patriotic culture—including many of the leading symbols and songs— was created by people, like Katherine Lee Bates, with decidedly progressive sympathies.
For example, the Pledge of Allegiance was authored and promoted by Francis Bellamy, a leading Christian socialist. Bellamy penned the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America by promoting use of the flag in public schools.
It was the Gilded Age, an era of major political and social conflict. Reformers were outraged by the widening gap between rich and poor, and the behavior of corporate robber barons who were exploiting workers, gouging consumers, and corrupting politics with their money. Workers were organizing unions. Farmers joined forces in the Populist movement to leash the power of banks, railroads, and utility companies. Progressive reformers fought for child labor laws, against slum housing, and in favor of women’s suffrage. Radicals were gaining new converts.
In foreign affairs, Americans were battling over the nation’s role in the world. America was beginning to act like an imperial power, justifying its expansion with a combination of white supremacy, manifest destiny, and spreading democracy. At the time, nativist groups in the North and Midwest as well as the South were pushing for restrictions on immigrants—Catholics, Jews, and Asians— deemed to be polluting Protestant America. In the South, the outcome of the Civil War still inflamed regional passions. Many Southerners, including Civil War veterans, swore allegiance to the Confederate flag.
Bellamy (cousin of best-selling radical writer Edward Bellamy) believed that unbridled capitalism, materialism, and individualism betrayed America’s promise. He hoped that the Pledge of Allegiance would promote a different moral vision to counter the rampant greed he thought was undermining the nation. Bellamy initially intended to use the phrase “liberty, fraternity and equality,” but concluded that the radical rhetoric of the French Revolution wouldn’t sit well with many Americans. So he coined the phrase, “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” intending it to express a more egalitarian vision of America, a secular patriotism to help unite a divided nation.
By 1924, the National Flag Conference, led by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the Pledge’s words, “my Flag,” to “the Flag of the United States of America,” despite Francis Bellamy’s opposition. In 1954, as the Cold War against the Soviet Union (and its atheistic Communism) intensified, the Knights of Columbus led a campaign to add the phrase “under God” to the Pledge. Congress agreed and on Flag Day that year, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law to include those two words.
Or consider the lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lazarus was a poet of considerable reputation in her day, who was a strong supporter of Henry George and his “socialistic” single-tax program, and a friend of William Morris, a leading British socialist. Her welcome to the “wretched refuse” of the earth, written in 1883, was an effort to project an inclusive and egalitarian definition of the American Dream.
In the Depression years and during World War II, the fusion of populist, egalitarian and anti-racist values with patriotic expression reached full flower.
Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1936, contrasted the nation’s promise with its mistreatment of his fellow African-Americans, the poor, Native Americans, workers, farmers and immigrants:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath
But opportunity is real, and life is free
Equality is in the air we breathe.
In 1939, composer Earl Robinson teamed with lyricist John La Touche to write “Ballad for Americans,” which was performed on the CBS radio network by Paul Robeson, accompanied by chorus and orchestra. This 11-minute cantata provided a musical review of American history, depicted as a struggle between the “nobody who’s everybody” and an elite that fails to understand the real, democratic essence of America.
Robeson, at the time one of the best-known performers on the world stage, became, through this work, a voice of America. Broadcasts and recordings of “Ballad for Americans” (by Bing Crosby as well as Robeson) were immensely popular. In the summer of 1940, it was performed at the national conventions of both the Republican and Communist parties.
The work soon became a staple in school choral performances, but it was literally ripped out of many public school songbooks after Robinson and Robeson were identified with the radical left and blacklisted during the McCarthy period. Since then, however, “Ballad for Americans” has been periodically revived, notably during the bicentennial celebration in 1976, when a number of pop and country singers performed it in concerts and on TV.
Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “A Lincoln Portrait,” both written in 1942, are now patriotic musical standards, regularly performed at major civic events. Few Americans know that Copland was a member of a radical composers’ group.
Many Americans consider Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land,” penned in 1940, to be our unofficial national anthem. Guthrie, a radical, was inspired to write the song as an answer to Irving Berlin’s popular “God Bless America,” which he thought failed to recognize that it was the “people” to whom America belonged.
The words to “This Land Is Your Land” reflect Guthrie’s assumption that patriotism and support for the underdog were interconnected. In this song, Guthrie celebrated America’s natural beauty and bounty, but criticized the country for its failure to share its riches. This is reflected in the song’s last and least-known verse, which Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen included when they performed the song in January 2009 at a pre-inaugural concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with President-elect Obama in the audience:
One bright sunny morning;
In the shadow of the steeple;
By the relief office;
I saw my people.
As they stood hungry;
I stood there wondering;
If this land was made for you and me.
During the 1960s, American progressives continued to seek ways to fuse their love of country with their opposition to the government’s policies. The March on Washington in 1963 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted the words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” repeating the phrase “Let freedom ring” 11 times.
Phil Ochs, then part of a new generation of politically conscious singer-songwriters who emerged during the 1960s, wrote an anthem in the Guthrie vein, “The Power and the Glory,” that coupled love of country with a strong plea for justice and equality. The words to the chorus echo the sentiments of the anti-Vietnam War movement:
Here is a land full of power and glory;
Beauty that words cannot recall;
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom;
Her glory shall rest on us all.
One of its stanzas updated Guthrie’s combination of outrage and patriotism:
Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor;
Only as free as the padlocked prison door;
Only as strong as our love for this land;
Only as tall as we stand.
This song later became part of the repertoire of the U.S. Army band.
And in 1968, in a famous anti-war speech, Norman Thomas, the aging leader of the Socialist Party, proclaimed, “I come to cleanse the American flag, not burn it.”
In recent decades, Bruce Springsteen has most closely followed in the Guthrie tradition. From “Born in the USA,” to his songs about Tom Joad (the militant protagonist in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) to his anthem about the 9/11 tragedy (“Empty Sky”), to his album Wrecking Ball (including its opening song, “We Take Care of Our Own”), Springsteen has championed the downtrodden while challenging America to live up to its ideals.
Steve (“Little Stevie”) Van Zandt is best known as the guitarist with Springsteen’s E Street Band and for his role as Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s sidekick on the TV show, “The Sopranos.” But his most enduring legacy should be his love song about America, “I Am a Patriot,” including these lyrics:
I am a patriot, and I love my country;
Because my country is all I know.
Wanna be with my family;
People who understand me;
I got no place else to go.
And I ain’t no communist,
And I ain’t no socialist,
And I ain’t no capitalist,
And I ain’t no imperialist,
And I ain’t no Democrat,
Sure ain’t no Republican either,
I only know one party,
And that is freedom.
Since the American Revolution, each generation of progressives has expressed an American patriotism rooted in democratic values that challenged jingoism and “my country—right or wrong” thinking. They rejected blind nationalism, militaristic drum beating, and sheep-like conformism.
Throughout the United States’ history, they have viewed their movements—abolition of slavery, farmers’ populism, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, civil rights, environmentalism, gay rights, and others—as profoundly patriotic. They believed that America’s core claims—fairness, equality, freedom, justice—were their own.
America now confronts a new version of the Gilded Age, brought upon by Wall Street greed and corporate malfeasance. The gap between rich and poor is still widening. Although the economy has improved in recent years, Americans are feeling economically insecure. They are upset by the unbridled selfishness and political influence-peddling demonstrated by banks, oil companies, drug companies, insurance companies, and other large corporations. They are angry at the growing power of American-based global firms that show no loyalty to their country, outsource jobs to low-wage countries, avoid paying taxes, and pollute the environment.
Consider Walmart, America’s largest corporation. Sam Walton, Walmart’s founder, promoted the motto “Buy American.” But today the retail giant, now owned by his heirs, imports most of its merchandise from Asia, much of it made under sweatshop conditions.
We are, once again, battling over immigration and who belongs in America. Some right-wing groups and talk-show pundits, calling themselves patriots, have even challenged the citizenship of our president.
These trends have triggered a growing grassroots movement—reflected by Occupy Wall Street but involving a diverse coalition of community groups, immigrant rights organizations, unions, consumer advocates, and human rights activists—demanding stronger regulations to protect consumers, workers, and the environment from abusive corporations, living wages, fairer trade, and higher taxes on the very rich to pay for better schools, safer roads, and student loans.
This movement, which embodies the idea of “liberty and justice for all,” reflects America’s tradition of progressive patriotism.
So this July 4th, proudly sing Bates’ “America the Beautiful” and Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” recite Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance, and wave the American flag. Remember that conservatives have never had a monopoly on patriotism.
Peter Dreier and Dick Flacks