My Country America
July 4, 1831: Samuel Francis Smith’s song is first performed. Smith was born in 1808 and first attended what was then Harvard College from 1825 to 1829. He was a classmate of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. After graduation, Smith went to Andover Theological Academy and graduated in 1834. While a student there he was asked to translate some German lyrics for a song. Lowell Mason also gave Smith the option of writing entirely new lyrics. Using a melody in Muzio Clementi’s Symphony No. 3, he penned new words in just 30 minutes. The song was first used at a children’s Independence Day celebration at Park Street Church in Boston. The song was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or better known as “America”. The melody is also used as the National Anthem of the United Kingdom, “God Save the Queen” (or King).
“America” served as one of America’s national anthems (along with songs like “Hail, Columbia”) until “The Star-Spangled Banner” was officially given that designation in 1931. The song as Smith wrote it originally had four verses. Smith penned a fifth stanza to celebrate Washington’s Centennial. Verses 6 and 7 were added by Henry van Dyke and in 1843, additional abolitionist verses (8-13) were added by AG Duncan. There have been some memorable performances of the song including Marian Anderson’s singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which included the first verse in 1963, the performance by Crosby, Stills &Nash performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on the first episode to appear after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and both Aretha Franklin’s and Kelly Clarkson’s performance of the song at the first and second inaugurations of President Barack Obama.
Smith went on to become a Baptist minister, ordained on February 12, 1834 in Waterville, Maine. He was also a Professor of Modern Languages at Waterville College until 1842. He moved back to Massachusetts at that time and became an editor of the Christian Review. He also worked as a minister. Eventually he became editorial secretary of the Baptist Missionary Union and between 1875 and 1880 made many trips to Europe, Turkey, and the Indian Empire as well as other missionary outposts.
He did not stop writing. In fact, he wrote over 150 hymns and worked with Baron Stow to create a Baptist hymnal. Oliver Wendell Holmes attempted to get an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Harvard University in 1893 for his old friend. Charles Eliot, Harvard’s president at the time, declined to grant Smith the honor. He cited the song’s fame was based on the tune, something Smith did not write, rather than the words. Holmes disagreed but was powerless to grant this honor himself. Smith died suddenly en route to a preaching engagement on November 16, 1895. He was 87.
My country, ’tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty, / Of thee I sing; / Land where my fathers died, / Land of the pilgrims’ pride, / From ev’ry mountainside / Let freedom ring!
My native country, thee, / Land of the noble free, / Thy name I love; / I love thy rocks and rills, / Thy woods and templed hills; / My heart with rapture thrills, / Like that above.
Let music swell the breeze, / And ring from all the trees / Sweet freedom’s song; / Let mortal tongues awake; / Let all that breathe partake; / Let rocks their silence break, / The sound prolong.
Our fathers’ God to Thee, / Author of liberty, / To Thee we sing. / Long may our land be bright, / With freedom’s holy light, / Protect us by Thy might, / Great God our King. – Samuel Smith
Also on this day: I’m Late! I’m Late! – In 1862, Alice Liddell heard a funny story.
Tuskegee – In 1881, Tuskegee Institute opened.
International Date Line – In 1892, Samoa adjusted the International Date Line.
Clinton’s Ditch – In 1817, construction on the Erie Canal began.
The Mona Lisa of Poetry – In 1855, Leaves of Grass was first published.