July 4, 1831 – First Public Performance of “My Country, Tis of Thee”

Samuel Francis Smith, born in 1808, was an American Baptist minister, journalist, and author. He is best known for having written the lyrics to “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, which he entitled “America”. The book My Country ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy follows the history of the song “America” and how the lyrics evolved over the years to reflect the political exigencies of the day. Because it is such a well known tune, and because it is such an iconic statement of about the ideals of America, generations of protestors have changed the words as part of their struggles for rights.

The author explains that the song first appeared in England in the 1740s as “God Save the King.” She then takes the song across the Atlantic where the colonists sang it, altering the words when they declared independence.

In 1831, Samuel Francis Smith published the version we sing today that begins with “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.” Smith gave Lowell Mason the lyrics he had written and the song was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, at a children’s Independence Day celebration at Park Street Church in Boston. (Mason was a leading figure in American church music, and the composer of over 1600 hymn tunes, many of which are often sung today.) Smith later wrote an additional stanza for the April 30, 1889 Washington Centennial Celebration.

Women, blacks, Native Americans, and labor activists later issued adaptations of the song to reflect their lack of liberty.

In each instance, the author explains the context and supplies some of the new verses.


She continues her journey through American history, culminating with the stirring speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 when he spoke of his dream of transforming the nation into one of brotherhood, declaring:

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing….”

She concludes by noting that forty-five years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea, the first person of color was elected to be President of the United States, and Aretha Franklin sang “America” at the inauguration.


But she doesn’t suggest the struggle for equal rights has ended. She writes:

Now it’s your turn. Write a new verse for a cause you believe in. Help freedom ring.”

At the end of the book, the author provides source notes, a bibliography, links to further resources, and sheet music for the song as we know it today.

Multiple award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier uses dramatic two-page mixtures of watercolors and collage. As always, he doesn’t just illustrate the text; his imagery adds his own commentary, enhancing the text with additional meaning.

Evaluation: This is an excellent way to teach children American history from a unique perspective, in two senses: one is that it provides an encapsulation of American history from the viewpoint of minorities, and two, it uses a clever and interesting approach with its focus on the changing lyrics of one song.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2014

Civil War Song Sheet, courtesy Library of Congress

Civil War Song Sheet, courtesy Library of Congress


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