“Hail to the Chief” has been the official anthem of the President of the United States for well over 150 years. The song is instantly associated with power, prestige, and position. Ironically, it was largely because of the stature of a man whose appearance failed to impress, that this song is now associated with the most powerful person on the planet.
“Hail to the Chief” was a featured song in the play, The Lady of the Lake. The play was based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott, and it was set to music by James Sanderson. The play debuted in New York City on May 8, 1812. Three years later, it was played in memory of President George Washington and in honor of the end of the War of 1812. Thirteen years later, President John Quincy Adams was in attendance at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, when the song was played — apparently for the first time in an event directly connected with a sitting President.
In 1829 President Andrew Jackson used “Hail to the Chief” for the first time in a way that was directly connected to the office of the Presidency. His successor, Martin Van Buren, was the first President to have the song played at his inauguration. After the very brief (30-day) administration of William Henry Harrison, President John Tyler found the song being played to announce his arrival — primarily at the insistence of his wife, Julia, who took a fancy to the tune.
It wasn’t until the administration of Tyler’s successor, however, that “Hail to the Chief” became the standard manner of announcing the President’s arrival. James Knox Polk, who stood at 5 foot, 8 inches (173 cm) and weighed 174 lbs (78.9 kg), didn’t exactly stand out in a crowd because of his appearance. Something was needed to draw attention to his presence. As the historian William Seale stated, “Polk was not an impressive figure, so some announcement was necessary to avoid the embarrassment of his entering a crowded room unnoticed. At large affairs the band … rolled the drums as they played the march … and a way was cleared for the President.”
While “Hail to the Chief” has been indelibly connected with the office ever since, not every President was particularly fond of the song. President Chester Arthur disliked the tune and commissioned John Philip Sousa to come up with something new. The result was the impressive “Presidential Polonaise,” but once Arthur left office, “Hail to the Chief” returned.
The song was less prominent, but did not completely disappear during the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Coming on the heels of Watergate and the abuses of power of the Nixon Administration, they tried to avoid being too showy with the trappings of power. Ford was inclined to favor the University of Michigan’s fight song, “Hail to the Victors“.
The lyrics to “Hail to the Chief”, as written by Sir Walter Scott, are:
Hail to the chief, who in triumph advances,
Honour’d and blest be the evergreen pine!
Long may the tree in his banner that glances,
Flourish the shelter and grace of our line.
Heaven send it happy dew,
Earth lend it sap anew,
Gaily to bourgeon and broadly to grow;
While every highland glen,
Sends our shout back agen,
“Roderigh Vich Alpine Dhu, ho! i-e-roe!”
The last line is the Scots Gaelic way of saying “Black Roderick, the son of Alpine!” which was a repeated battle cry in The Lady of the Lake.