C. J. Doyle
As we solemnly commemorate on Memorial Day the heroic sacrifice of 1,060,000 Americans who, from 1775 until the present time, gave their last full measure of devotion in the service of the United States, we might also take a moment to recall an old patriotic tradition, now long forgotten.
America’s original, de facto, national anthem—Hail Columbia—was composed by Philip Phile in honor of the first inauguration of President George Washington in 1789. Entitled The President’s March, its lyrics were written by Joseph Hopkinson in 1798. The song gradually became known by the opening words of its first line: Hail Columbia, happy land!
An elegant piece of music, it was created in the same decade as two other famous and inspiring anthems, Franz Joseph Hayden’s beautiful and sublime Kaiserhymne and Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle’s rousing and magnificent Le Marsellaise. For 140 years, Hail Columbia was, to both Americans and Europeans, the musical expression of American sovereignty and independence.
It was just 89 years ago, in 1931, that Congress passed, and President Herbert Hoover signed into law, an act making The Star Spangled Banner the official national anthem of the United States. Lobbying by the Maryland congressional delegation, the embrace by organized baseball of Francis Scott Key’s song, and a 1916 Executive Order by President Woodrow Wilson ordering the armed forces to play the Star Spangled Banner at official ceremonies, all brought about the replacement of an anthem so closely associated with the person and Presidency of General George Washington.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter designated Hail Columbia as the Vice-Presidential March. A composition to honor the Father of Our Country became the fanfare for Walter Mondale.
There are two noteworthy cinematic presentations of Hail Columbia. The first is 7:45 minutes into the 1926 silent film classic Old Ironsides, when the gallery of the U. S. House of Representatives bursts into song when Congress finally authorized the construction of the Eagle of the Sea, the U.S.S. Constitution.
Perhaps the best instrumental rendition of Hail Columbia occurs 1:46 minutes into the 1947 Jimmy Cagney movie 13 Rue Madeleine, about U.S. intelligence operations against the Nazis in World War II.
As this year is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe and the end of the Second World War, let us pay, on this Memorial Day, a special remembrance, most especially in our prayers, to that generation which defended their country from totalitarian aggression, and in doing so, freed a continent from tyranny.