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Katherine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” conveys the incalculable beauty of virtue that America can exhibit by exercising self-control and taking on the high responsibilities of self-rule. Our prayer is that the anomalies of this year do not overcome us, and that our nation will recall itself and find again the greatness of soul that gave us our liberty.

Are we celebrating our independence this year? Whether we even should is an open question in many places—but not in Lander, Wyoming, where the parade will go on, albeit more modestly than usual: no folding chairs parked curbside a day ahead of time, no candy thrown from floats to the kids swarming the streets, no firetrucks spraying water two hundred feet into the air above Main Street in the grand finale. The Wyoming Catholic College community will participate, and fireworks that night could very well make up for the relative restraint of the morning, but even in Lander the strangeness of 2020 will continue. It is good to remind ourselves, particularly this year, what America means in its noblest register.

One-hundred-twenty-five years ago this week, Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, published the first version of “America the Beautiful” for the Fourth of July that summer. Many phrases from her hymn have become part of our national memory: “spacious skies,” “purple mountain majesties,” “amber waves of grain,” “from sea to shining sea.” The song’s emphasis is bracing. The lines that best address our current situation come at the end of the second stanza:

America, America!
God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

Difficult as it is these days to imagine addressing America as a single entity, Bates does so boldly in her hymn.

After acknowledging “every flaw” of this beautiful nation and praying for God’s help, the song turns imperative. “Confirm thy soul in self-control,” writes Bates, and a great deal is compacted into the word soul. It evokes 19th-century romantic heroes—great, striving, sublime figures impatient with all boundaries, like Napoleon or Melville’s Ahab. As Abraham Lincoln wrote in one of his early speeches, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others.” Bates has such heroes in mind, but she also draws upon the classical idea of magnanimity, “greatness of soul,” the crown of the moral virtues that Aristotle describes in Nicomachean Ethics.

The tyrant’s way to distinguish himself might be to step over the usual moral thresholds with a larger-than-life excess, like the “extraordinary man” that Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov imagines. But the strongest soul overcomes its own unruly impulses and manifests its virtues through an inner equilibrium; it is like tuning an instrument. “Confirm thy soul” in Bates’ poem means two things: first, to establish America’s nobility of soul beyond doubt before the nations of the world, and, second, to add greater strength to the national identity and make it firmer. The more America exercises the power and depth of self-restraint, as George Washington did, the more she confirms her greatness.

The song also urges America to confirm her “liberty in law.” Liberty is sometimes construed to mean breaking free of all constraints, like an escaping prisoner. I am reminded of William Wordsworth’s poem, “Nuns Fret Not At Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” where he praises the demands of the sonnet form.

In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.

As the convent is no prison for the nun who chooses it, or the sonnet for Wordsworth, so the law is no prison for those who exercise their liberty in choosing its restraint. In fact, America confirms her liberty—makes it firmer, gives it a more established strength—through obedience to law.

Bates’ song remains perennially appealing because it conveys the incalculable beauty of virtue that America can exhibit by exercising self-control and taking on the high responsibilities of self-rule. The same appeal applies to each individual citizen. We ought to shine, especially on this day, among the nations of the earth. The prayer of Wyoming Catholic College for this Fourth of July is that the anomalies of 2020 do not overcome us and that our nation will recall itself and find again the greatness of soul that gave us our liberty.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.

This essay first appeared here in July 2020.

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