Happy Birthday, America!

“At last, they reached the summit, a view she (Katharine Lee Bates) took in, she later said, in ‘one ecstatic gaze’: below, a bedspread of green pine; in the distance, peaks capped with white; above, a sky the blue of a robin’s egg. She wrote one line more in her diary that day: ‘Most glorious scenery I ever beheld.’ That night, in her room at the Antlers Hotel, she began composing a poem … ‘America, the Beautiful,’ Bates’s poem, set to music, became the United States’ unofficial anthem, a hymn of love of country.

                                                ~ Jill Lepore

I’m not usually very political; however, in recent years I have become more and more opinionated about politics and the state of the country. As a State of Colorado employee for twenty years, I felt had to keep my political opinions in check, at least in public. My friends know that I did express my opinions, often loudly, just not in a manner that would draw public attention.

I’m a liberal, maybe even a ‘lefty’. I have friends that are avowed Republican, even verging on libertarian in one case, and my liberal views run counter to theirs much of the time. We do, however, still find ways to discuss the differences without disrupting our friendship. We have even agreed on many issues, including some of the actions of George W. Bush (but not Iraq).

All of that ease with politics vanished, however, when Donald Trump took office. I won’t detail the abhorrence I felt with every act he performed or the things he said. Luckily, I have never encountered one of my friends with a MAGA hat on their head, but I have become adept, if not totally consistent, at avoiding discussion of politics.

However, I felt a great abyss quickly open between what I think America means and what, apparently, Trump, the modern Republican Party and the MAGA crowd think it means. The sham patriotism and manufactured evangelical Christian political fervor is totally anti-American, in my view. The blatant hypocrisy relating to a raft of issues is stunning. I am astounded by the total disregard for facts, ethics and the norms that have guided American politics and elected officials during my adult life. Trump and Republicans seem to believe that owning up to White Supremacy, gun worship, bigotry and misogyny is okay. I guess they finally started saying the quiet part out loud, but it has driven their base to be louder.

In the Vietnam War era, there was some disagreement about what the official national anthem should be. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was militant and celebrated war, whereas, “America the Beautiful” cataloged and celebrated the county’s bounties.  Personally, I favor “beautiful, for spacious skies” over “bombs bursting in air.”

In contrast to Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” actually included disparaging mention of blacks and demonstrates Key’s negative opinion of their pursuit of freedom at the time by escaping to fight with the British, who promised them freedom from American enslavement.

The two authors were also significantly different politically. Key was an anti-abolitionist lawyer, and slave owner. Bates had a woman partner with whom she lived for 25 years. She loved the wilderness, was a socialist and a devout Christian entirely immersed in the world of progressive era social and political reform, including union and immigrant support.

Lepore notes, “Americans of Katharine Lee Bates’s day were as politically divided as Americans of this day — arguably, they were more divided — over everything from immigration to land use to racial justice to economic inequality. And her America was similar to this America in more ways, too: It was wondrous and cruel, rich and poor, merciless and merciful, beautiful and ugly.”

I believe that one of the strengths of our country is its diversity, not only of gender or race, but of opinion, background and attitude. I doubt that Francis Scott Key and Katherine Lee Bates would have much regard for each other, but they each have added something valuable to our country.

On July fourth, America’s birthday, it is a good time to celebrate our differing opinions, biases and beliefs. Lepore observes that in 1893 Bates “spent July 4 in the prairie, in western Kansas, eyeing its amber waves of grain. She wrote in her diary that she considered herself ‘a better American for such a Fourth.’”

Maybe we can all be better Americans this fourth of July.

Additional information:

Jill Lepore, How ‘America the Beautiful’ Was Born, November 3, 2020, National Geographic Magazine

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