We Americans like to think of ourselves as anti-monarchical; most of us on the Right are self-styled small-r republicans, while Leftists think of themselves as small-d democrats. In addition, we all, Right and Left, fancy that what unites Americans is devotion to a set of ideas to which we all adhere, and which are best embodied in our Constitution. Yet within the bosom of man resides a desire for, if not hero-worship, leader-adulation—a primal yearning to follow a man in the flesh, and not just an esoteric set of rules and laws or abstract ideas. If we Americans cannot quite bring ourselves to adopt the rallying cry of our English brethren to die for “King and Country,” we have come awfully close to elevating the American Presidency to the level of popular sovereign.

Such an expression of the deepest heart of human nature was manifest as early as the presidency of George Washington. At the Philadelphia convention of 1787, the Founders were afraid to create a single executive, yet in the end, they saw no other way to create what Alexander Hamilton called an “energetic executive.” Surely, it was the presence of George Washington himself that reassured the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that it was safe to entrust the office to one man. And though Washington went on to set the example of what a republican president should be, the American people themselves adored him as their dear leader as much as they had when he was the central hero of their Revolution. John Adams considered a number of titles for the new president, including “His Elective Majesty,” “His Mightiness,” “Your Most Benign Highness” and “His highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” And though the Founders settled on the simple “The President of the United States,” the presidency would have a tinge of royalty about it from the start because of the regal bearing of the first occupant of the office.

At Washington’s inauguration, a tune written by a German-American named Philip Phile had been played in honor of the United States’ first president. This tune, which became known as “The President’s March,” would be used by lawyer Joseph Hopkinson in 1798 for his song “Hail, Columbia.” Hopkinson wrote the song as the request of his friend Gilbert Fox, who wanted a song for his performance in Philadelphia—then the capital of the new nation—that would serve to unite Americans, who were then bitterly divided between two parties, the Federalists and Republicans.

Both the title of the song, and its opening verses appealed to the patriotism of all Americans for their land and common heritage:

Hail Columbia, happy land!
Hail, ye heroes, heav’n-born band,
Who fought and bled in freedom’s cause,
Who fought and bled in freedom’s cause,
And when the storm of war was gone
Enjoy’d the peace your valor won.

The President of the United States at the time was John Adams, and Adams, the heads of the departments of the United States government, and members of Congress attended a performance by Fox of “Hail, Columbia,” two days after its premier. Adams was so thrilled by the song that he requested that Fox perform it several times that evening. Author Ace Collins describes what happened next:

As President Adams and his delegation departed the theater, thousands of Americans lined the streets. In one voice this mass of humanity began to sing “Hail Columbia.” Even Adams and members of Congress joined in. Perhaps there has never been such a spontaneous musical moment in American political history.[1]

The self-important Adams surely appreciated the stanza of the song that praised the president:

Behold the chief who now commands,
Once more to serve his country stands.
The rock on which the storm will break,
The rock on which the storm will break,
But armed in virtue, firm, and true,
His hopes are fixed on Heav’n and you.
When hope was sinking in dismay,
When glooms obscured Columbia’s day,
His steady mind, from changes free,
Resolved on death or liberty.

“Hail Columbia” would be played for the next three presidents after Adams—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—but it would eventually become associated with the office of the Vice President of the United States, as new song came to replace it as the anthem of the chief executive. It was the second president’s son, John Quincy Adams, who would first be serenaded by “Hail to the Chief,” a song that was written in 1811 by conductor James Sanderson to accompany Sir Walter Scott’s play, The Lady of the Lake. The tune was immensely popular, and it was featured at an 1815 event held in Boston that celebrated the end of the War of 1812. As author Collins again writes:

For the Boston celebration, L.M. Sargent had rewritten “Hail to the Chief” as “Wreaths for the Chieftain.” As it was the birthday of George Washington, the song was probably performed as much to honor the memory of the first president as it was to mark the ending of the recent war. Whatever the real reason for the song’s rewrite, the crowd loved the new version. Hundreds left humming the tune as they made their way home. The performance struck such a strong chord that overnight sheet-music sales for the various versions of “Hail to the Chief” doubled. Unable to remember the title, many walked into stores asking for the “Washington Song” or “The President’s Anthem.”

Thereafter, the song was not explicitly associated with the president until the First Ladies of President John Tyler and James K. Polk both suggested that “Hail to the Chief” be played when their—somewhat unimpressive—husbands entered formal events. Both Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur apparently did not like “Hail to the Chief.” The former had a different march played at his inauguration, while the latter asked the famed musician John Phillip Sousa to compose a new piece to be used for the chief executive. Sousa’s “Presidential Polonaise” had little lasting power, however, and though Sousa attempted to make his next effort the presidential song, it too failed to catch on. But “Semper Fidelis” did, of course, become the hymn of the Marine Corps.

“Hail to the Chief” has been played for every president from Grover Cleveland to Donald Trump, becoming the official song of the president in 1954. Its lyrics reflect the American desire, despite our republican protestations, to look to a single man to lead us:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.

Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that is our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

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Notes:

[1] See Ace Collins, Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue: The Stories Behind America’s Best-Loved Patriotic Songs

[2] The full lyrics of “Hail, Columbia” can be found here.

The featured image is “The arrival of George Washington at the Battery, New York City, 23 April 1789, prior to his inauguration as the first president of the United States on 30 April,” steel engraving, 1866, by John C. McRae after a painting by Henry Brueckner.

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