America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)

Words by Samuel Francis Smith, 1832; tune "God Save the King"

People often call this hymn by its first line, "My Country 'tis of Thee, sweet land of liberty," instead of its title, "America." What are the most important words in the first line? Why? What "voice" is used in this song? First person. What pronouns are used for the United States? What do they mean? America = "you"; the formal, archaic form of "you" is used; "thee" implies special respect.

Smith's classmate Oliver Wendell Holmes said about this song, "That little pronoun [my] did it all, and will forever do it…That puts America in the hearts of the people." How would changing this song to third person change its meaning?

What aspect of America does the first verse focus on? Liberty, freedom. What aspect does the second verse focus on? Love of the land. The song begins by singing to "thee, my country." Who is "thee" in the last verse? God. What does the last verse pray for America? Freedom, safety.

What is the significance of Smith writing his "patriotic hymn" to the tune of "God Save the King," the patriotic hymn of Great Britain? How much anti-British sentiment was there in the United States in 1832?

What line became inspiration 130 years later for Martin Luther King, Jr.? Let freedom ring. What are your favorite lines of this song? Why?


"America" performed by the Metropolitan Quartet, Edison 78 rpm disc [Edison 80172-R], © 1914.

View the lyrics for "America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)"

View the published score.

Samuel Francis Smith
Portrait of Samuel Francis Smith, 1890.

This text was written at a time when immigration in the United States was increasing at a notable rate due to political and social upheavals in Europe. As a result, life in America was characterized by change and uncertainty. Many Americans were unsure whether the Union would survive the strain. Working under a commission, Smith came across this tune while inspecting some German songbooks for hymns for Lowell Mason's children's choir. Thinking it was a German patriotic song, he was inspired to write a new American hymn. It was first performed by Mason's children's choir on July 4, 1832, and was subsequently published in the collections utilized by the schools for musical instruction. As its popularity increased, "America" was accepted for use in public schools and civic ceremonies, among other venues.

Compare this song to:

"God Save the King" (Unit 1)

"The New America" (Unit 5)

Compare the words of "America" with "God Save the King" (Unit 1). How are they similar and different? What is the significance of those differences?

Compare this song to "The New America" written by women in the 1890s (Unit 5). How were the words changed? What was their message?

 

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