From Highland Chief to Commander-in-Chief: Sir Walter Scott and the Soundtrack of the Presidency

20th Jan 2021

On the day of the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, our Collections and Interpretation Manager Kirsty looks into a surprising musical link between Sir Walter Scott and the inauguration.

The 20th January is a big day for the United States and for the world as the 46th President takes his oath of office as Commander-in-Chief. No doubt the 2021 inauguration will be coloured by the troubles and restrictions of our times, but one unassailable constant will be a rendition of ‘Hail to the Chief’, courtesy of the President’s Own Marine Corps Band. Even if you don’t know the name of the piece of music, I promise that you’ll know the tune; a jaunty, martial earworm that oozes pomp and patriotism.

The anthem ‘Hail to the Chief’ is a redacted and edited version of ‘The Boat Song’ from Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake (1810); part romance, part feudal and martial epic that explores conflicting identities, traditions and loyalties in 16th-century Scotland. The men of Clan Alpine sing the verses in chorus as they row across Loch Katrine towards Ellen’s Isle to deliver a transactional marriage proposal, honouring the prowess and steadfast resolve of their brooding Chieftain, Rhoderick Dhu, or the ‘Black Rhoderick,’ in verse. From its literary inception this was a song associated with a journey, and even a rite of passage. But how did a song dedicated to a Highland outlaw become fittingly presidential?


Engraving of Rhoderick Dhu from The Lady of the Lake

To answer that we need a little context. American audiences had lapped up Scott’s poetry in the early years of the nineteenth century and The Lady of the Lake (1810) was the most successful publishing venture yet. In Europe it had broken all records for a fictional work, with seventeen thousand copies sold in the first six months of publication, rising to twenty-five thousand copies in eight months. This gathering momentum was far from accidental, for as summer waned Scott was receiving letters from composers and editors keen to capitalise on the Lady’s success and adapt the work for the stage, with a Covent Garden production scheduled to open to the public before the end of the year. This was to include James Sanderson’s melody, composed for the verses of the Boat Song, beginning with that immortal line ‘Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances…’.

By 1811, there were three distinct productions of the Lady of the Lake associated with London, Edinburgh and Dublin, and described by Scott as ‘three theatrical grandchildren.’ This vibrant afterlife ensured that alongside the poem itself, editions of sheet music from the stage productions began to circulate. They proved a particular favourite with American audiences following the debut of the theatre production in Philadelphia in 1812, and the signature piece proved to be Sanderson’s ‘Hail to the Chief’.

Hail to the Chief sheet music title

The timing here was key. This theatrical debut coincided with the war of 1812, a conflict between The United States of America and the United Kingdom and its colonies that erupted after years of simmering tensions over the Royal Navy’s practice of press-ganging American mariners into service to bolster the fight against Napoleon. This coercive practice was endorsed by the British Crown given the wartime shortages in manpower, but in many cases, it amounted to Royal Navy ships boarding American vessels at sea and taking its crew members by force. Given that the ink had not long dried on the articles of the Constitution of the United States and the first ten amendments to that Constitution, this practice of forcing American citizens to aid a foreign power was considered an affront to sovereignty and liberty.

And it is here that we find the nub of the appeal and peculiar resonance of those verses of the Boat Song from The Lady of the Lake.

“Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!

Honored and blessed be the ever-green Pine!

Long may the tree, in his banner that glances,

Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line…”

The tone of the clansmen is triumphant, for their chieftain is as strong as a tree and his roots in the land go deep. He is a rebel and an outlaw, rejecting subjugation to the Scottish Crown. The words tap into that deep well of feeling relating to identity and belonging and acknowledges how these concepts are both inscribed on and wedded to the land. They touch raw nerves and stir abiding passions.

‘Attack on Oswego, War of 1812’, Harper’s Magazine, Vol 28, 1864

Sanderson’s ‘Hail to the Chief’ was first played in association with a US President just three years later at an event in Boston to commemorate President George Washington’s birthday. From then on it was on a steep upward trajectory, incorporated into a wider musical programme for President Andrew Jackson in 1829 and played at President Van Buren’s inauguration in 1837. It was during the presidential terms of the 1840s that the song’s association with the Presidency was cemented, specifically its use as a clarion call marking the President’s arrival at an event or function. The appeal of this tactic is clear enough, where music is used as a signifier of a kind of atmospheric transubstantiation, when the President simply through just occupying a space, imbues it with the power of the Office. Even in these very early days, the lyrics were massaged to soften the martial overtones of the original lines and tinkering has continued into the 20th century. After many years of constitutional association and a number of attempts to sideline or replace the piece by sitting Presidents who preferred alternative anthems, ‘Hail to the Chief’ was declared the official musical tribute of the US President by the Department of Defence in 1954.


10th US President John Tyler, responsible for incorporating ‘Hail to the Chief’ into Presidential ceremonies (1841 to 1845)

Scott did, of course, know of Sanderson’s composition and the theatrical fervour for the production in America. But despite the synergy American audiences felt with the plight of Clan Alpine and their quest for autonomy, Scott was not sympathetic to the accusors in this the new conflict between Britain and the United States, having been harangued by American privateers whilst at sea in the North Channel of the Irish Sea with the staff of the Northern Lighthouse Commission in the summer of 1814. Looking back in 1816, he described it as a ‘foolish war’ at a time when the attention should have been solely focussed on defeating Napoleon and his allies. This distaste for destabilisation is typical of Scott, who was always looking to history for its lessons and cues to tackle the issues of the present. When an uneasy peace was reached, aided by the end of the European War in 1815, he lamented the dissatisfying conclusion to a conflict that had jeopardised Europe’s fight against such a dangerous adversary:

“Wonderful indeed have been the circumstances which have brought about peace to Europe and frantic must be the madness that would again draw the sword for petty and individual interest. And yet to say truth I have more reliance upon the exhausted state of the Continent in point of wealth and military resources than upon wisdom and moderation in my hopes that peace will be maintained. I could have wished that the Americans had felt the force of this country in such a manner as would have deterred them in future from being rash in breaking with us. But the opportunity has somehow been neglected and that negligence is surely an argument for than against peace”

Somewhat grudgingly, then, he declares ‘let bygones be bygones’!

Sir Walter Scott in His Study with His Dog 'Maida', portrait by Sir William Allan, 1831. © The Abbotsford Trust.

Scott’s private and political feelings had no real impact on the afterlife of his work in the United States, and when President Millard Fillmore established the first White House Library in the early 1850s, it contained a complete set of Scott’s works alongside John Gibson Lockhart’s biography of his life, first published in 1837. In 1871, for the centenary celebrations of Scott’s birth, the Earl of Dalkeith requested a telegram from President Ulysses S. Grant that could be read out to a delighted audience at the anniversary banquet in Edinburgh, a dazzling possibility courtesy of the new transatlantic cable lines. Sadly, the President was away at the time of the telegram and his congratulations to the people of Scotland and a toast of thanks to Scott’s memory did not arrive in time.

Dalkeith’s request was well calculated, for President Grant and his First Lady were devoted fans of Scott’s literature. Within months of completing his presidential term in 1877, the Grant family were en-route to Europe for a cultural tour that was to last two and a half years, visiting Abbotsford and Melrose Abbey in early September of that year and signing the Abbotsford visitor book. On President Grant’s death in 1885, he bequeathed a cane made from the wood of the Abbotsford estate to the national collection at the White House. Moving to the 20th century, President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) was also a professed bookworm and a fan of Scott’s literature, and completed a body of personal research on ‘Hail to the Chief’ and its historical sources prior to its official adoption as the presidential anthem.

Signature of 18th US President Ulysses S. Grant in Abbotsford's visitor book (7th from top)

So, from Highland chief to Commander in Chief and from rowing across the lake to our allies across the pond, the story of how these verses from Scott’s poem have become incorporated into the ceremonial fabric of the Office of the President of the United States is an enduring reminder of the extent to which Scott’s literature has shaped our world in unexpected and fascinating ways.

Abbotsford wishes all our American friends and readers a peaceful inauguration day and the very best for 2021.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson FSA Scot

Collections and Interpretation Manager

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