Ceremonies at the White House - Honoring Foreign Heads of State

The White House has been the official residence of all US presidents since John Adams, our second president, and First Lady, Abigail Adams, moved into the house in November of 1800. But the White House actually belongs to the people of the United States. It’s often been called the People’s House. It’s a place for the nation to meet and celebrate joyous national occasions, share in times of mourning, honor heroes and showcase some incredible national talent.

On the world stage, the White House is our nation’s place to visibly show American diplomacy. The president is, after all, the nation’s leading diplomat. So the White House is where presidents and first ladies receive and honor foreign dignitaries to promote cultural understanding and good will. This is done via receptions and dinners sporting touches of flair and pageantry. Building warm international relationships is an important goal of all receptions and state dinners. Presidents and first ladies strengthen our nation’s friendships and alliances by returning the hospitality shown to our diplomats when visiting other countries. Tensions are often eased through such acts of hospitality.

In 1860 President James Buchanan invited Great Britain’s Prince of Wales to the White House. This show of hospitality was extended just shy of 50 years after Great Britain had burned Washington!  Tensions between the two countries were still very high. But the visit went so well that it played a big part in easing these tensions.

Initially, when the nation was young, Washington, DC was considered by most dignitaries around the world to be a backwoods town with very little to offer (This continued well into the 19th century).  So diplomatic ceremonies were important to show the world that we could, in deed, do them. We won our independence from Great Britain but then we needed to show the world that we could actually "hold our own!" 

President John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, were the first president and first lady to live in the White House. So they set the precedent for how things were to be done in the presidents’ new house. They adopted the formal rules of European court etiquette just as George and Martha Washington had done in New York and Philadelphia before them.  

This meant a lot of formality and a set way of greeting, eating with, having discussions with, even saying good-by to guests, all similar to the way it had been done in the courts of Europe for centuries.

Then along came Thomas Jefferson, our third president. President Jefferson would have nothing to do with formal court etiquette. He held two open houses each year. One on New Years Day and another on the Fourth of July. They were both open to anyone and everyone who arrived at the White House. No invitation was needed! Jefferson even replaced the traditional court bow with a handshake. This soon became the favored manor of greeting.

The style and etiquette for American state visits has continued to change as our nation has grown up. 

       What Does a State Visit Look Like?

A state visit is the highest form of diplomatic visit.  It is reserved for a foreign country’s official head-of-state or head-of-government. Not only must a state visit extend our nation’s hospitality to a foreign head-of-state, it must also present the United States as a grand and prosperous nation. So, a state visit must, itself, be a grand event.

King Kalākaua of Hawaii meets President Ulysses S. Grant in the Blue Room of the White House in the first state visit for a ruling monarch to the US in December 1874 .  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper . (Photo from The Business Insider – April 24, 2018)

King Kalākaua of Hawaii meets President Ulysses S. Grant in the Blue Room of the White House in the first state visit for a ruling monarch to the US in December 1874Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. (Photo from The Business Insider – April 24, 2018)

The first visit of a foreign head-of-state to the United States was from the then-independent Kingdom of Hawaii in 1874. This was followed by a state visit by Brazil in 1876. Since then numerous emperors, queens, kings, presidents and prime ministers have been formally received by the President of the United States at the White House. 

The customary length of a state visit is 4 days. Today’s protocol for the visit was, for the most part, established during President Kennedy’s administration and has remained largely unchanged since then.

Here’s a brief outline of the protocol for a State Visit:

Photo Image: From Wikimedia

Photo Image: From Wikimedia

Flight Arrival --- The visiting head-of-state arrives at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.

As the visiting head-of-state or head-of government walks down the air stairs, the U.S. Air Force Band performs Arrival Fanfare Number One. At the bottom of the stairs, he or she is greeted by an American schoolchild with a bouquet of flowers. Then he or she is introduced to the welcoming committee by the U.S. chief of protocol. The national anthems of the country of the visiting head of state and of the United States are performed. The visiting guest then departs, by car, usually to the Blair House, the president's official guesthouse.

White House Arrival --- A foreign head-of-state arrives on the South Lawn of the White House the morning after he/she arrives in the United States.  Members of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Services are waiting there to great the arriving head-of-state, displaying their colors and flags from the 50 states and all US territories.

Side Bar: Is the South Lawn the front door or the back door of the White House? The White House has neither a front door nor a back door, but rather it has a North Front and a South Front/South Lawn.

Also waiting on the South Lawn are -

  • members of the Official Foreign Delegation,
  • representatives of the three branches of the U.S. government,
  • embassy staff of the guest country being honored,
  • -and members of the press

There are also invited guests in attendance, frequently including American citizens with ancestral links to the foreign head-of-state's country.

As the motorcade carrying the visiting head-of-state arrives, trumpets are sounded and a member of the diplomatic corps announces from the balcony of the White House’s South Portico:

Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States accompanied by the First Lady.

Then guests hear four ruffles and flourishes followed by Hail to the Chief and the president and first lady stand on the red carpet ready to receive the foreign head-of-state.

The foreign head-of-state and his/her spouse arrive and are greeted by the president and first lady. Then the foreign head-of-state's national anthem is played, preceded by four ruffles and flourishes. This is followed by our National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

Side Bar:  What are Ruffles and Flourishes? They are musical fanfare sounded to render military honors and preceed perscribed music for people being honored. Ruffles are played by the drums; flourishes are played by the bugle or the band. They are performed simultaneously. (From Jari Villanueva - tapsbugler.com)

After the exchange of anthems, the two heads-of-state review the honor guard. A state visit is, of course, meant to be a friendly one. However, American protocol dictates the presentation of military exercises as a show of the Commander in Chief's control of American forces.

The review of the honor guard is followed by the playing of Yankee Doodle Dandy by the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, which is dressed in their 18th century colonial uniforms. (Yankee Doodle Dandy is not played if the visiting head-of-state is from the United Kingdom. Can you guess why?)

There is often a 21 gun salute for heads-of-state and a 19 gun salute for heads-of –government.

Short speeches are made next, first by the president to welcome his diplomatic guest and then by the visiting head-of state to thank his/her host.

The presidential party then enters the White House through the Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor. As they enter they pass through a receiving line of invited guests and proceed to a reception on the state floor. The president and the foreign head-of-state withdraw to the Blue Room where they walk out onto the balcony and wave to the crowd below.

Then in the Red Room, the two heads-of-state formally exchange state gifts and the foreign head of state signs the White House guest book to document his or her visit.

Finally, it’s time to eat! The president and the head-of-state join their spouses and a few selected guests for a private luncheon in the President's Dining Room on the residence floor. It’s truly an event!

But there is more ---

The State Dinner --- In the 19th century most official dinners at the White House, even if not in honor of a foreign head-of-state, were considered State Dinners. But today a State Dinner is only given in hour of a foreign head-of-state or head-of-government. And it is quite an elaborate event easily requiring a minimum of six months preparation! It is always a formal (black tie or white tie) affair.

And this time the action begins on the North Front of the White House. Here the president and first lady greet the visiting head-of-state and his/her spouse who arrive by motorcade from nearby Blair House. After this arrival they are escorted to the yellow Oval Room inside the White House where top-ranking officials such as the US Secretary of State, other Cabinet members and members of Congress, etc. greet them. At the same time about 100 invited guests are arriving at the east entrance to the White House and are led into the East Room to await the entrance down the Grand Staircase of the president and the first lady and the visiting dignitaries.

According to the White House Historical Association, the White House “State Dining Room seats 120 people and must accommodate the official party and an equal number of administration people leaving space for 40 couples. Not many when you consider people who should be invited as well as people who would make an interesting and entertaining evening.”

The White House Executive Chef is responsible for preparing the dinner itself with the help of the White House Executive Pastry Chef. The dinner usually consists of four or five-courses - an appetizer or soup, fish, meat, salad and dessert. The food served centers around the national cuisine of the visiting foreign head of state and must be perfect! Rumor has it that President and Mrs. Reagan once tried out the entire meal a week before one of their state dinners.

Following dinner there is entertainment! 

(Here’s a link to the best look-see at Sate Visits that I could find: https://medium.com/@ObamaWhiteHouse/behind-the-lens-official-state-visits-through-the-years-dcc637b64114)

Declining or canceling an invitation to a state or official visit can be interpreted as a rebuke of the United States on the international stage. Not a good idea!

Resources Used for This Article:











Caroli, Betty Boyd. Inside The White House, America’s Most Famous Home. New York: Readers’ Digest Association, 1999.

Grove, Noel. Inside the White House, Stories From the World’s Most Famous Residence. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2013.

Monkman, Betty. The Living White House. Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2013.

Seale, William. The President’s House, Volume I & II. Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 1986.