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When Boston literary icon Oliver Wendell Holmes was asked to produce an original song for the National Peace Jubilee, he readily agreed. But he knew his limitations; he was a poet and essayist, not a musician, so he attached his words to a preexisting song, "An American Hymn," written by Matthias Keller just three years earlier.
Keller's hymn may haven been American, but he was born in Germany. He studied music in Stuttgart and Vienna, and he served as a bandmaster for several years before immigrating to America in 1846. Keller pieced together a living as a performer and violin-maker, but shortly after the Civil War, he tried his hand at composing when the federal government offered a prize for the composition of an original national hymn.
When it debuted before the New York Academy of Music, his composition, "An American Hymn," was poorly received. In fact, the prize committee didn't deem any of the entries worthy of an award. But in Boston, Keller's song was better received, and soon it was a favorite among the city's wind bands. In attaching his words to this popular song, Holmes hedged his bet; the 50,000 people gathered for the opening ceremonies of the Peace Jubilee were certain to like his piece.
In both its original and revised form, Keller's piece was called a hymn, and there's no missing its anthemic qualities. Nor is this surprising, as it was written for a patriotic competition, after all. In fact, within Keller's music, one can hear echoes of the German anthem "Das Lied der Deutschen," which was written by famous composer Joseph Haydn in 1797, as well as foreshadows of the Canadian anthem, "O Canada," written by Calixa Lavallée in 1880.
The Civil War was four years in the past when plans for the National Peace Jubilee were unveiled in 1869. Yet, these years had been far from peaceful.
The Confederacy may have surrendered in 1865, but political tensions remained extremely high. President Abraham Lincoln had proposed a lenient plan for national Reconstruction in 1865, and after his assassination, President Andrew Johnson implemented Lincoln's forgiving proposal. Southern states were re-admitted to the Union on easy terms; most Confederate participants in the rebellion were granted pardons, and their political rights were restored.
But very quickly, these presidential Reconstruction plans drew fire. Many Northerners objected, in particular, to the fact that the newly freed slaves were denied their political and civil rights under the restored Southern governments. Some slaves were even forced to continue working on the same plantations they had just been freed from in order to survive.
In 1866, more progressive forces in the North succeeded in electing "radicals" to Congress who introduced more demanding Reconstruction plans. The Southern states were ordered to draft new state constitutions that included a role for the freedmen, but President Andrew Johnson resisted implementation of these "radical" congressional plans. Tension between the two branches grew until 1868, when Congress attempted to impeach President Johnson. Congress failed, but Johnson was politically dead.
In the 1868 elections, former Union General Ulysses S. Grant was elected president with a promise to support Congress' Reconstruction plan. Grant defeated the Democratic challenger handily in the Electoral College, winning 25 of 33 states, but no state gave Grant a larger majority than Massachusetts, where General Grant won 70% of the popular vote.
This led Bay Staters to feel a bit more optimistic in 1869 when they celebrated peace at the National Peace Jubilee. It appeared that Congress and the president were finally in agreement over Reconstruction policy; the political turmoil lingering since the Civil War might be finally approaching an end. This optimism, however, would be short lived. By 1872, Grant's own Republican Party was divided over his policies, and he faced a significant challenge from within the ranks. He managed to win reelection, but a series of scandals undercut his popularity and effectiveness.