Why Do We Play ‘Hail to the Chief’ for the President?

A Scottish rebel features prominently in the anthem

Hail to the Chieftain
The song made its debut 205 years ago—in a boat. Brooks Kraft LLC / Corbis via Getty Images

Editor’s Note, January 8, 2021: While the inauguration of president-elect Joseph R. Biden will look different than the ceremonies of years past, Smithsonian is recirculating this archival piece on the history of a traditional inaugural song.

Amid drummed ruffles and bugled flourishes, “Hail to the Chief” will be played twice in ear-ringing succession at this January’s inauguration, once for outgoing President Barack Obama and then again for incoming President Donald Trump.

But there’s another chief in the mix whenever this song is played, and the peaceful transfer of power is the farthest thing from his mind. His name is Roderick Dhu, or Black Roderick, and he’s a bloody-minded medieval Scottish outlaw, albeit a fictional one. He hails from Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake,” an 1810 narrative poem, later a hit play, set in the 16th-century highlands. In one early scene, Roderick’s pike-wielding, tartan-clad clansmen serenade him with a lusty “Boat Song,” the source of our national tribute: “Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances! / Honored and blessed be the ever-green Pine!”

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of The Lady of the Lake on our impressionable young country. The 1812 Philadelphia debut was a theatrical smash, the Hamilton of its day, staged dozens of times in major American cities with spectacular costumes and elaborate sets. The score was published and fed the craze for parlor music. “These songs were simply in the air,” says Ann Rigney, author of The Afterlives of Walter Scott. The hero of The Lady of the Lake is a nobleman named James Douglas, but American audiences loved the glamorous bandit who ruled by blood right and instinct, says Ian Duncan, an English professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Locomotives, mines and even babies were named after Roderick Dhu.

No doubt the War of 1812, America’s rematch with England, made the play’s politics especially resonant. “Roderick Dhu is this Scottish chieftain who hates England,” explains Joseph Rezek, a scholar of British and American Romanticism at Boston University. Commanding his people against Scotland’s King James V, who was half English, Roderick was ruffian and ruler both, not unlike some of the first American presidents.

Even though Americans celebrated outlaws and rebels, we also indulged a contradictory desire for the pomp and circumstance of authority. Perhaps this was why we needed national songs in the first place. (It’s no coincidence that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is also a relic of the War of 1812.) For a personal theme song, George Washington had experimented with “Hail, Columbia,” which critics may have found a little too laudatory. (“Let Washington’s great name / ring through the world with loud applause.”) Jefferson tried “Jefferson and Liberty.” (“To tyrants never bend the knee / But join with heart, and soul, and voice, / For Jefferson and Liberty!”) Neither stuck, thank goodness.

“Hail to the Chief” was selected in a more haphazard, or democratic, fashion. It was first played to honor an American president as early as 1815, when a Boston celebration marking the end of the War of 1812 fell on Washington’s birthday. But it really took off in 1829, when the Marine Band performed the march as Andrew Jackson was leaving a Georgetown ceremony for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and provoked three cheers from the crowd. President John Tyler formally picked it as the official anthem for the office in the 1840s.

But because the bloody sprees of a highland fugitive—however poetic—were not really a proper tribute for a U.S. president, the lyrics would be rewritten several times. In one early version called “Wreathes for the Chieftain,” a peaceful olive tree supplanted Roderick’s mighty Scottish pine. A painfully bland mid-20th-century version called to “make this grand country grander.” Today the lyrics are all but forgotten, but the Department of Defense keeps close tabs on the melody, dictating the Marine Band play it in B-flat major and only for sitting presidents in stately contexts and at presidential funerals. Still, it seems this bandit’s tune has proved an apt anthem for a country that so loves its rebel roots.

Preview thumbnail for video 'The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move by Ann Rigney

The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move by Ann Rigney

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