“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’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!”
These are the seldom-heard lyrics to the familiar tune “Hail to the Chief” that plays triumphantly upon the arrival of a United States President.
We learn in a 2013 CNN article by Bob Greene that the phrase “Hail to the Chief” originated in Scotland in 1810 as part of a poem by Sir Walter Scott. That particular poem, “The Lady of the Lake,” had nothing to do with the United States or with the presidency. Rather, the story told in the poem’s plot became a British stage play that made it across the ocean within a few years.
Among the songs that came to the United States as part of the play was “Hail to the Chief,” written by James Sanderson. To honor the presidency, the song was given new lyrics and reportedly was used in that context for the first time at an 1815 ceremony to commemorate the birthday of George Washington.
Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, first became a holiday on Jan. 31, 1879, in the District of Columbia.
Later, in 1885, the law was amended to provide the holiday for federal government employees in all states. Author Helene Henderson, of Patriotic Holidays of the United States, further notes that while we refer to the third Monday in February as Presidents’ Day, U.S. law officially designates this day as Washington’s Birthday, as Congress established the day as a federal holiday on May 13, 1938.
In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill was introduced in Congress advocating not only the rescheduling of most federal holidays to Monday dates, but also the renaming of Washington’s birthday holiday to Presidents’ Day. At the time, this bill was unsuccessful in passing. Years later, however, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Law became effective, and, with it, many businesses and advertisers promoted this three-day weekend in February as “Presidents’ Day,” hoping to extend sales from Lincoln’s birthday to Washington’s birthday.
By the 1990s, many Americans thought the holiday was intended to honor Lincoln and Washington, or even all presidents.
It is in this spirit that Bossard Library will commemorate Presidents’ Day with a special living history performance “From Log Cabin to White House: The Life of President James A. Garfield” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20 in the Library’s Riverside Room.
President Garfield will be portrayed by Ed Haney, who has performed this unique program for more than two decades and has worked at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. His portrayal of our nation’s 20th president has been well received by the descendants of President Garfield. The audience will experience an intimate and timely view of the stages of Garfield’s life, including his boyhood, working on the Ohio Canal, the Civil War, and up through his assassination.
It is my hope that readers will commemorate Presidents’ Day during February by attending this living history performance on the life of one of Ohio’s eight great U.S. presidents.
President Lincoln once said, “My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.” If you are interested in reading more about the American Presidency, I encourage you to delve into the past, engage in the present, and learn more about the presidential candidates of the future by visiting Bossard Library — your friendly source for all of your reading interests.
Debbie Saunders is director of Bossard Memorial Library in Gallipolis.
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