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My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Samuel Smith starts off his patriotic song with some cluttered and repetitive phrasing.
With the way these lines are written, most probably don’t stop to think about what the lines are actually saying, and that may be just as well. The spirit behind this opening is great, but the phrasing is cluttered. What lyricist Samuel Smith was trying to say is, "My country, land of freedom, I’m singing about you."
Rhyming is apparently pretty hard, though, and he needed to stretch all this out in order to maintain his meter scheme. He essentially wrote, "My Country, it's about you, land of liberty, about you that I sing." Smooth.
Land of the pilgrims' pride
In this line, Samuel Smith wasn't referring to the international chicken processing company.
Believe it or not, this line doesn't refer to the chicken processing company headquartered in Greeley, Colorado. True, this "Pilgrim's Pride" is one heck of an operation. With plants in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, the company employs more than 40,000 people and can process—prepare yourself—more than 38 million chickens a week. That works out to almost two billion birds a year.
Brothers Aubrey and Bo Pilgrim founded the company in 1946, and by gum, they were proud of it. Samuel Smith obviously died long before the brothers plucked their first chicken, though. Smith was referring instead to the English Puritans who founded Plymouth colony in 1620.
During the 1800s, about the time Smith wrote this line, these settlers were first given the label Pilgrims. When they set out for America, they were more commonly called Separatists. They were part of a larger religious reform movement that sought to purify the Church of England. Followers of this movement argued that the church's hierarchy was corrupt and that its forms of worship were cluttered with too much empty ceremony. Most Puritans felt an obligation to remain in England and work to reform the church. A small contingent, however, believed that the existing church was beyond hope and that they must separate from it in order to build a new and purer church.
These Separatists moved first to Amsterdam. The city, with its tradition of religious toleration, welcomed the refugees, but the Separatists quickly regretted their choice. They found the city to be a little too tolerant—too morally lax. They worried that their children would be corrupted, so they packed their bags once again and sailed for America. They landed at Plymouth Rock—in what would become Massachusetts—in mid-November 1620.
My native country, thee,
This line didn't actually apply to many Americans at the time when Samuel Smith wrote his song.
Samuel Smith was saying something pretty simple in this line: he was born in America; it was his native land. When he wrote this line in 1832, however, immigration rates to the United States were on the rise, and fewer and fewer American residents could make this claim.
During the first decades of the 19th century, immigration rates were low. Between 1780 and 1819, on average fewer than 10,000 people immigrated to the U.S. annually. Between 1821 and 1831, fewer than 15,000 came to the U.S. yearly. Between 1832 and 1846, however, close to 72,000 people began arriving annually. And between 1847 and 1854, more than 330,000 immigrants came annually, on average, to the United States.
While many immigrants genuinely consider themselves to be Americans after they've lived in the country for a while, no amount of time spent here could ever make it their "native country."
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills
What the heck is a rill?
Except for Samuel Smith's reference to a rill, this line is pretty straightforward; he loves America's natural landscape—its rock, hills, woods, and rills. Oh, and in case you weren't sure, a rill is tiny creek, like a little stream that forms temporarily to carry off melting snow.
Smith was neither the first nor the only American songwriter to link love of country with love of nature. 60 years later, Katharine Lee Bates would kick off her "America the Beautiful" with a similar celebration of the American landscape:
O beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
In between, an American art movement, known as the Hudson River School, would explore the majesty and romance of the American continent on canvas.
Let music swell the breeze
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom's song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.
In this line Smith calls everyone, even rocks, to sing freedom's song.
There's a couple different way we could interpret this line. For example, it's tempting to find a romantic celebration of the truth that is found in nature in Smith's demand that the "rocks their silence break." That's not romantic in the lovey-dovey sense, but romantic in the sense that it was defined within the philosophic and artistic movement labeled romanticism.
Widespread in the early 19th century, romanticism suggested that Truth could be found in nature. Reason was limited; it could not ascertain or understand many of the universe's spiritual truths that were better felt than thought, sensed and intuited rather than reasoned out. Romantics argued that, by immersing oneself in nature, an individual could feel the truth written in the trees, flowers, rivers, and rocks.
Smith, however, was not a romantic, and proof of that lies in his education; he attended Andover Seminary rather than Harvard Divinity School. Orthodox Calvinists upset over the rise of Unitarianism at Harvard founded Andover in 1807. Unitarianism represented the liberal edge of American Christianity. Eventually many Unitarians took a step even further away from orthodoxy by embracing Transcendentalism, and Transcendentalism was filled with romantic ideas about truth and nature.
Since Smith was an orthodox Baptist, he would not have intended singers to find any sort of romantic inferences in this line. Most likely, he just liked the rhetorical drama provided by the suggestion that even the rocks should join in celebrating freedom. By making nature sing, he was probably attempting to be more patriotic than romantic.
Our fathers' God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing,
Remember the repetitive, cluttered phrasing Smith used in the song's first lines? Well, he's at it again.
If you compare this line with the song's first, you should see a similar pattern. In a somewhat confusing, repetitive way, Smith started out by saying "My country, it's about you, land of freedom, it's about you that I sing." He now closes the song with a prayer that says "God, to you, creator of liberty, to you we sing," in the same cluttered, repetitive structure.
The cluttered phrasing aside, this final verse reminds us that Smith was a Christian as well as a patriot. His love of country was tied to his love of God. He believed that liberty was not just a political characteristic of America, nor was it merely the legacy of the Founding Fathers; liberty was a gift from God and therefore shed a "holy light" on the American people.