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Concert poster for The United States Marine Band at the White House, 1928. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

Thomas Jefferson’s Passion for Music Began a Civic Tradition Still Celebrated Today

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson helped establish the United States Marine Band, which performs buoyant music at every inauguration.

On March 4, 1801, the 32-member U.S. Marine Band gathered at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., for Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration. Consisting of drummers and fifers, the fledgling organization had been established only three years prior in 1798 to serve as entertainment for governmental functions.

President John Adams was the first to invite the band to the White House a couple of months before Jefferson’s inauguration. It made its debut on January 1, 1801, at the unfinished Executive Mansion, hosted by Adams. The federal government’s move from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., was so fresh that the finishing touches were still being completed at the President’s House, what was then called the Executive Mansion. The name “White House” was coined in 1811, three years before its reconstruction after the British burned the former building down.

While President Adams was in office during the U.S. Marine Band’s inception, its biggest cheerleader would come later when Jefferson stepped in as Commander in Chief.

Jefferson’s Favorite Passion

A window silhouette of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson playing the violin for his family in 1805. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Jefferson remains one of America’s most successful and historic diplomats. While he had an undying love for his country, he stated that music was the “favorite passion of my soul” in a letter to the Italian economist and natural historian Giovanni Fabbroni.

Jefferson was an accomplished violinist and dedicated much of his childhood to the study of music. In his 20s, his courtship with his future wife Martha Wayles Skelton was spent bonding over music. According to historians at Monticello (Jefferson’s private residence), their shared love of music translated to their affections vividly. The two could often be seen playing music together. As they sang to each other, Martha played her harpsichord and Thomas played his violin. They continued to foster their shared love of music throughout their marriage, which helped keep it strong—even through Jefferson’s most trying times.

Jefferson’s musical tastes were broad. Mozart and Haydn were considered to be two of his favorite composers. But he also had a penchant for Scotch songs, which focused on life spent in the rural expanses of Scotland with an old-time tune style. He also learned as many Italian works as he could.

‘Godfather’ of the Marine Band

Uniforms for the President’s Own U.S. Marine Band from “U.S. Marine Corps Uniforms 1983,” by Donna J. Neary. (Public Domain)

His love of music influenced the cultural landscape of early 1800s America. Italy and France were considered to be places of musical renaissance, and he wanted to create that type of musical flourishing in the United States. He vowed to bring a renewed sense of life to Washington, D.C., through the expansion of music’s role—particularly the role of classical music and traditional works—for the district’s official events.

Months after the Marine Band’s first performance for President Jefferson at his inauguration, he invited the group to perform at the White House’s first official Independence Day celebration. Set up in a room near the party’s festivities in early July, the band played a variety of classical music and entertaining pieces. The party’s attendance soon grew to 100, and the attendees danced and marveled at the band’s prowess. One guest, Samuel Harrison Smith, later wrote to his sister saying the music the band played would have inspired her “patriotic heart” with “delight.”

The United States Marine Band soon became a regular at Jefferson’s events. He was so attached to the group of talented young musicians that he nicknamed them “The President’s Own,” after a tradition in England that often ascribed artists working in an official capacity to be nicknamed the King or Queen’s “Own.” The sign of respect was returned when Jefferson was later nicknamed the “godfather” of the United States Marine Band due to his eager support of the unique military endeavor.

A Fighting Spirit

President Lincoln was especially fond of the Marine Band performances in the White House and weekly concerts on the grounds. An illustrated plate of the U.S. Marine Band playing on July 4 in the 1861 Harpers Weekly. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)

Since its performance at President Jefferson’s inauguration, the U.S. Marine Band went on to perform at every president’s inaugural ceremony, marking one of America’s longest-standing civic traditions.

“The President’s Own” began with 32 drummers and fifers. But with Jefferson’s support, the band grew along with its role as official entertainer of the White House. Today, the band boasts over 160 members. And it performs for around 700 events annually.

With one of the most scrupulous audition processes and a legacy built around the “fighting spirit” of the earliest Marine Band members, the premier group is made up of the nation’s most talented and respected musicians. The long-standing organization’s dedication lies in upholding the country’s founding ideals and principles through the performance of traditional works. The United States Marine Band remains the oldest professional music organization in America.

John Williams conducting “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band for its 225th anniversary concert at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on July 16, 2023. (U.S. Marine Band)

From March Issue, Volume IV