Friday December 19, 2014
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09-048 James Knox Polk and Hail to the Chief II

Friday Dec 19, 2014

Lead: The story behind the tune Hail to the Chief, ritualized during James Knox Polk’s presidency, is not very encouraging news for incumbent politicians.

Intro: A Moment In Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: The melody has been around since the early 1800s. We know for certain it was played for Presidents Quincy Adams, Jackson and Tyler, but it was institutionalized as a part of White House ceremony by First Lady Sarah Childress Polk, who was dealing with a Presidential public relations problem. James Knox Polk accomplished a great deal in his Presidency, mostly in foreign affairs. Despite his achievements, the Polks were not popular in Washington.

Besides, James Knox Polk was an unprepossessing man. He could walk into the room and be completely ignored. The First Lady's solution: ceremonial entrance music. Whenever he entered the room the orchestra was instructed to play Hail to the Chief. Today, with its Scottish snap rhythm and rising beat, it remains one of the most enduring and beloved features of White House ceremonial life.

The music was probably written by James Sanderson, conductor of London's Surrey Theater Orchestra. He set to it to words from the Second Canto of Sir Walter Scott's epic poem, Lady of the Lake, a tremendously popular romantic saga drawn from Scotland's clan warfare. Yet despite its heroic origins and lilting melody, the story is hardly an encouraging one for a politician.

The poem describes the demise of a failed Scottish chieftain, Roderick Dhu of the Douglas clan, who was betrayed by his friends, abandoned and executed by his enemy, King James V. Scott's work never achieved canonical status and is typical 19th century popular literature: turgid, often politically incorrect and a bit alien to modern ears, but in this case it tells a surprisingly up-to-date and chilling story of the shifting winds of popular opinion.

In Canto Five, James laments the fickle nature of his constituents:

'O Lennox, who would wish to rule

This changeling crowd, this common fool?

Hear'st thou,' he said, 'the loud acclaim

With which they shout the Douglas name?

With like acclaim the vulgar throat

Strained for King James their morning note;

With like acclaim they hailed the day

When first I broke the Douglas sway;

And like acclaim would Douglas greet

If he could hurl me from my seat.

Who o'er the herd would wish to reign,

Fantastic, fickle, fierce, and vain?

Vain as the leaf upon the stream,

And fickle as a changeful dream;

Fantastic as a woman's mood,

And fierce as Frenzy's fevered blood.

Thou many-headed monster-thing,

O who would wish to be thy king?-

From Polk onward Presidents have been presented to the people using the stirring notes of Hail to the Chief. Some have actually been caught up in the adoration implied in its use, convinced that the aura around the office of president could protect them from political collapse. Perhaps each president prior to his (or her) inauguration, prior to that time when they are first welcomed by the admiring strains of Hail to the Chief, should be required to read all of Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake, a story of the rise and triumph of heroes and their precipitous and painful fall.

Research assistance by Joanna Marcinkowska. The producer of A Moment In Time is Steve Clark. At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.


Bergeron, Paul H. The Presidency of James Knox Polk. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Holland, Barbara. Hail to the Chiefs: How to Tell Your Polks from Your Tylers. New York: Ballentine Books, 1997.

Kane, Joseph Nathan. Facts About the Presidents: A Compilation of Biographical and Historical Information. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1993.

Lindop, Edmund. Presidents By Accident. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.

Scott, Walter. The Lady of the Lake, A Poem in Six Cantos. New York: T.Y. Crowell and Company, 1883.

"Hail to the Chief: The Origins and Legacies of an American Ceremonial Tune." American Music 15 (Summer 1997): 123-136. Call number: ML1 .A47, ISSN: 0734-4392.

Copyright 2014 by Dan Roberts Enterprises, Inc.


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