Why “America the Beautiful” Should Be Our National Anthem


Fourth of July Fireworks at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Robbin Cresswell, public domain)

Why “America the Beautiful” Should Be Our National Anthem
By John Unger Zussman

No, it’s not because the “Star-Spangled Banner” (let’s call it SSB) is unsingable. The notes span about an octave and a half, which is within most people’s range. (The issue is that different people’s ranges don’t necessarily overlap.) But I digress.

The problem is the underlying attitude toward America framed by the SSB. It’s hinted in the opening verse, which we all know, but much more explicit in the last:

Then conquer we must,
When our cause it is just,
And this be our motto:
“In God is our trust.”

The SSB idealizes a militaristic, imperialistic America, one that turns to God for help in imposing our view of justice on the world.

Contrast this with “America the Beautiful” (ATB), which is not just about the scenery. Consider the second verse:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

ATB portrays an America that celebrates not just spacious skies and purple mountains, but immigrants and freedom, self-control and law. It sees America, realistically, as imperfect, but asks for divine help to perfect it.

And the poetry’s better. Thank Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics.

That’s the America I plan to celebrate this Independence Day. Because there’s more than one kind of patriotism. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Copyright © 2010 by John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.


About John Unger Zussman

John Unger Zussman is an award-winning screenwriter, creative writer, and technical writer from Portola Valley, California. His essays have been published in The Sun Magazine. He has won a Grammy Award (as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus), but there’s room on the shelf for an Oscar and a Pulitzer. John also works as a corporate storyteller in info and biotech and holds a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University.
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16 Responses to Why “America the Beautiful” Should Be Our National Anthem

  1. Sivan says:

    Here here!

  2. I was the principal at an alternative, parent-participation pre-5th grade school. During that time I established a student council with the idea of helping the students have a voice, understand democracy (and representative government), and learn the roles in decision making. The children developed agenda items in their daily classroom meetings, and then voted on what needed to go to student council. Many many meetings gave me my biggest challenge: how not to laugh out loud with glee and delight at the innocent wisdom, literalism, and honest ego-centrism of these students. Instead I would hold a serious, respectful face (which was how I felt as well) and try not to meet the eyes of my asst. directors.
    One meeting an earnest second grader brought the question “Why don’t we say the pledge of allegiance each morning like my friends do at their schools?” He looked me directly in the eye, slightly accusatory, but with a confidence that I would address this issue. I asked the group if they knew what the pledge of allegiance was and some hands shot up.
    “What we sing at baseball games” beamed a 4th grader, pleased he had the “correct” answer.
    I said “hmmm, I think you are thinking of the national anthem, and yes that is sung before sports events…any other ideas?”
    Apparently that is what each of them, from kindergarteners (accompanied by a volunteering parent) through 5th graders believed.
    “Well, lets just write down the words to the pledge…oh, does anyone know what ‘pledge’ means?”
    A third grader called out “furniture polish” and I launched into a small talk about promises.
    “Does anyone know what allegiance means?”
    Eyes around the room looked anywhere but into mine. So I told the children I am uncomfortable having people say something together as a group each day if they don’t know what it means. If anyone was interested they could take it back to their teacher and classroom and explore what the pledge of allegiance means, and come back to student council and educate the rest of us. It was that kind of school. So the boy whose original inquiry it was wound up being the only council member to pursue it, and bless his teacher, they launched into an integrated curriculum unit – that included studying the flag, flags, symbols, poetry, anthems, etc. This was woven into math, art, science, language arts, social studies, even PE and emotional/social learning. After bringing back the info to the council, a proposal was made to let each class discuss and vote on if they wanted to do the pledge of allegiance each day in their classroom. Believe me there were parallel discussions in the parent group and board room. In the end only the 2nd grade class who had studied the whole issue chose to vote yes, with this modification: Allow time each day for those who want to say the pledge or any other promise, even to themselves.
    What a wonderful journey it was!

    • jzussman says:

      January, thank you for this wonderful and illuminating story, and for telling it so vividly. I hope the children in this program understand what an extraordinary education they are receiving.


  3. Anne Srigley says:

    I agree, wholeheartedly, that America the Beautiful should be our national anthem for the same reasons you discussed. America is a beautiful nation, as expressed in the song. Let’s celebrate the country, not the bombs bursting in air.

    • jzussman says:

      Thanks, Anne. I don’t mind bombs bursting in air as long as they’re fireworks. As John Adams said, we should celebrate Independence Day “with pomp and parade … bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward, forevermore.”


  4. Paul Quin says:

    John, dear, I’ve always thought it should be ‘This Land is Your Land’. The others are so frusty, some inherited vision that has lost immediacy. But when I sing about the spread and range of the country – and every time the lists of places is different – and about exploring and freedom and hope, well, it makes me love this land. And I figure that would be a good thing for a song to do. Besides, the music itself has a peppy spirit that we can always use more of. It would be a thrill to be at the Olympics or the World Cup and hear the band break out with this music!

  5. Ted Parks says:

    Why should our great country have just one official anthem? Why not let people chose which to use to fit the occasion? Let’s start a Second Anthem Movement (SAM)!

  6. guane bowen says:

    ssb is martial msong of a nation yht enjoys war, We are supposed to be a peace loving nation,even though our history says otherwise

    • jian tao says:

      I honestly don’t care which one is going to be our anthem, but i was wondering why you started an argument that our anthem should change, and you say that the current anthem idolizes a military view. yet why would you use an example from the SSB poem and not the words in the current anthem. That phrase isn’t in the anthem so i was just wondering

      • John Unger Zussman says:

        Jian, thanks for your comment. There is no separate SSB poem. The anthem has several verses, only one of which we usually sing. But it’s there.

  7. Tom says:

    You know, I just searched “national anthem america the beautiful” at lunch, and it brought me here. I’ve always preferred ATB, and I agree. Even the verse that refers to military action petitions thusly (for other readers’ sake, not yours):

    O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
    Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
    America! America! May God thy gold refine,
    ‘Til all success be nobleness, and every gain Divine!

    It brings tears to my eyes just typing it out. I’d be more than happy to stand through and/or sing with) all 4 verses at any event, any time, any place.

    I also have 3 of the 4 verse of the SSB in memory – it was only in the recent controversy over it that I found out about the seldom-published 3rd verse containing “hireling and slave”. I think the fuss over that is a bit overblown – was slavery bad? Of course! And apparently Francis Scott Key was quite the racist. But what he said was not that all slaves should die, but that the slaves of US citizens who’d been recruited by Britain to fight alongside other mercenary troops (“hirelings”), should be defeated. Britain wasn’t trying to free our slaves, they were being opportunistic; and as we wanted to preserve our nation, the mercenaries & slaves fighting for Britain had to be defeated.

    Still, for me that just cemented it. My vote is for America the Beautiful.

    • John Unger Zussman says:

      Tom, thanks for finding this 6-year-old post, and for your thoughtful comment. I’d be glad to sing ALL the verses of ATB with you. I appreciate the insights into SSB as well.

      • Logan Kennedy says:

        If you want to replace the national anthem that’s fine. Just have everybody who ever fought and died under the old song sign a petition saying that’s fine. You did not disrespect those who have fought and gave their life and try to change and take away that honor. If you have never served to defend this country in my opinion you have no right to say anything about the flag or the national anthem because it is with those two items that men have fought and died for and under.

        Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

        • John Unger Zussman says:

          Logan, thanks for your comment. Although I appreciate your option, I respectfully disagree. I don’t think our brave warriors fought for the flag or the anthem, but for the people, the land, and the Constitution that those things represent.

          • Logan Kennedy says:

            When I was in the service I fought for my family my country the flag the national anthem. And for everybody out there even you who wants to take away something very important to those who fought and died to protect your honor and your rights. If you have never been in the service  you do not know what it means. To hear  that song or to see that flag wave it means home, peace,love. So if you want to change the national anthem or the flag. Do me a favor and kill me first. I would lose respect for this country and it’s people if they took away that honor from those who have fought and died for your freedom to spit on your grave.

            Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android


    ATB should be the NA in my biased view.

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