Study Guide

My Country 'tis of Thee Technique

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  • Music

    Sketching the musical history of "My Country 'tis of Thee" is relatively easy, but fleshing out the details of this history is more difficult. Certain pieces of the story are clear; Lyricist Samuel Francis Smith was introduced to the tune while working with a German songbook in 1832. He liked one melody in particular because it had a patriotic feel, so he wrote the words that we now sing.

    Smith said that he did not know that the tune that intrigued him was used much earlier for "God Save the Queen/King," Great Britain's national anthem, but that didn't stop almost everyone else from quickly recognizing the familiar melody. "God Save the Queen/King" had been a patriotic favorite in England since the 1740s and had circulated in North America since at least the 1760s.

    The melody's origins are more difficult to trace beyond this point. Some music historians have argued that German composer George Frideric Handel wrote the basic tune some time before 1720. One can hear the familiar tune within the "Sarabande" from his Suite No. 4. Others have argued that the British anthem had British roots. Several works by 17th century English composer Henry Purcell are frequently cited as the origins of "God save the Queen/King." Another group claims that the song is even older, derived from a Scottish song, or even from an early Catholic liturgical plainsong. 

    Don't you just wish they kept better records of this stuff back then? Or at least didn't go around pretending they'd never heard stuff?

  • Setting

    Some patriotic songs are inspired by international crises. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written during the War of 1812; "God Bless America" was written during World War I and first performed as Europe moved to World War II in 1938. In 1832, though, when Samuel Francis Smith wrote "My Country 'tis of Thee," the United States wasn't facing an international crisis. It was internal divisions that threatened to tear the Union apart.

    Southern states vehemently opposed national tariff policies throughout the 1820s. They argued that tariffs, which imposed taxes on imported goods, protected Northern manufacturers but hurt Southern planters who were forced to pay higher prices for manufactured goods. Southern opposition to Northern-backed tariffs reached crisis proportions in 1832 when several states, led by South Carolina, threatened to "nullify" the tariffs passed in 1828 and 1832. Under the controversial doctrine of nullification, states claimed the right to void or ignore laws they believed unconstitutionally passed by Congress.

    Although President Andrew Jackson was a supporter of states' rights, he believed that the doctrine of nullification was unconstitutional. He threatened to use force against South Carolina if it failed to enforce the tariffs. For a time, South Carolina stood its ground, but at the eleventh hour, Congress passed a compromise tariff that averted the crisis and allowed both South Carolina and Jackson to claim a victory.

    Smith wrote "My Country 'tis of Thee" as these events were unfolding. He never said that he was moved by fears of disunion, but he certainly knew that a sectional crisis was brewing, and like many Americans, he may have believed that a was imminent.

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