Katharine Lee Bates, Class of 1880, Penned the Poem that Would Become the Lyrics to America's "Unofficial National Anthem"

June 29, 2016
Historic photo of train traveling across the United States
Rick Johnson

In honor of the upcoming 4th of July holiday, here’s a little American history trivia: did you know that a song written by a Wellesley woman was almost our national anthem?

At Wellesley, "America the Beautiful" is routinely sung during Step Singing, Convocation, and Commencement, and other occasions (and, as called for by informal tradition, student singers bellow SISTERHOOD in place of brotherhood during a key refrain). Professor and poet, Katharine Lee Bates, Class of 1880, wrote the poem that would became the lyrics to the popular ballad in 1893.

Bates, an English professor, agreed to take a summer teaching position at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She was impressed with the beauty and vastness of the United States and was inspired to write the words during the 2,000 mile cross-country train trip.

"She was on a train going through Kansas on the Fourth of July in 1893 and she saw wheat waving in the wind, golden wheat… She got to Colorado. She saw the Rocky Mountains, purple gorgeous mountains… This trip was giving her fodder for the greatest poem she would ever write," said Lynn Sherr ‘63 in a 2001 interview with ABC news. Sherr is author of a book called America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song.

The poem's original four stanzas were printed on July 4, 1895 in an issue of The Congregationalist newspaper. The final poem was published in the Boston Evening Transcript nine years later. A strong push was made to adopt the hymn as the national anthem in 1926, but President Herbert Hoover chose the "Star-Spangled Banner" instead, despite protests from some who disagreed with the choice of a song written in battle and others who found it too difficult to sing.

There are still occasional conversations as to whether the song Bates' lyrics, which is sometimes called the "unofficial national anthem," should be made the official national anthem. Including a push in 2014 by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) as a last act before his retirement.

"I love this song," said Sherr in the ABC interview. "I think it's simple, I think it's emotional, and I think it talks about a country, a land and its people — not just about a flag, not just about a battle. It doesn't talk about conquest. It talks about the possibilities of this nation."

Bates was an English professor at Wellesley from 1885 to 1925. The Wellesley College Archives contain several boxes of America the Beautiful memorabilia and related materials among the papers of Katharine Lee Bates, dating from 1866 to 1977.