Ratified in 1788, the Constitution of the United States of America contained a specific requirement for the nation’s first president, George Washington, and all others who followed.
Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 mandated then, as it does to this day, that the president “shall, from time to time give to the Congress Information on the state of the union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Thus, Washington delivered to the House of Representatives and Senate the very first State of the Union Address – then called an “Annual Message” – on January 8, 1790, or 231 years ago today. He gave his initial 1,089-word address in New York, which served as the national’s capital until it moved to Washington, D.C., eight months later.
In each address since, presidents present their plans for defense, for the economy, and for how they intend to solve the problems the nation faces.
Washington continued to give in-person updates to joint sessions of Congress throughout his presidency as did his successor, John Adams.
Thomas Jefferson, though, sent written addresses to Congress because he felt the in-person ones made a president look too kingly. In doing so, the nation’s third president set a precedent that would last until Woodrow Wilson resumed live addresses in 1913 – 112 years after Adams’ last.
Some State of the Union tidbits:
- William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield died before addressing Congress – Harrison of pneumonia after just 41 days in office in 1841 and Garfield by assassination 1881. Zachary Taylor gave only one address during his 16-month presidency before his death from cholera in July 1850.
- Calvin Coolidge – a man of few and well-chosen words and who bore the nickname “Silent Cal’’ – became the first president to give his address live on radio in 1923.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt gave 12 addresses as “state of the union’ messages, 10 of them directly to Congress.
- Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successor, made “State of the Union” the official name of the address. He also gave the first televised State of the Union address in 1947.
- Since then, only a few presidents declined to deliver in-person addresses, primarily because they were leaving office. Truman was among them, joined by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter, who sent written addresses to Congress. Richard M. Nixon, meanwhile, declined in 1973 because the State of the Union came just days after his second inauguration and accompanying speech.
- President Johnson gave the first evening address in 1965, and his speeches changed the way TV covered them. The networks began offering the other party airtime for responses or rebuttals to the President’s address and lifted their time limits for covering them. In 1966, CBS gave the “Green Acres” time slot to Senator minority leader Everett Dirksen. National Educational Television – which later became PBS – dedicated more than three hours to the coverage in 1967 and gave airtime to New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, and to nationally known economist Milton Friedman to analyze Johnson’s speech.
- While Washington’s 1,089-word message in 1790 reigns as the shortest, Jimmy Carter gave 33,667 words as the longest written address in 1981, and Bill Clinton’s 9,190 words in 1991 holds the record as the longest spoken one.
- George W. Bush gave the first State of the Union in a webcast on the Internet in 2002, and delivered the first televised in high definition two years later.
This year’s State of the Union will be in February. Stay tuned.