The History of the State of the Union Address

 U.S. government poster from WWII

U.S. government poster from WWII

The history of the State of the Union Address is quite fascinating.

Here are five interesting facts about t it:

1. Thomas Jefferson started a 112-year tradition of giving the message only in writing 

Our first two presidents–George Washington and John Adams–traveled to Congress to deliver the speech. However, when Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1801 he opted for a written address. 

2. Woodrow Wilson revived the in-person speech to Congress in 1913

In 1889, Wilson, then a political scientist, wrote that Jefferson should never have made the switch, since an oral presidential message could have allowed a "more public and responsible interchange of opinion between the Executive and Congress." So, when he was elected in 1913, he made the switch. 

3. The "State of the Union address" is a fairly recent renaming of the president's message

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution states that the president shall "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." But for nearly 150 years, that term "State of the Union" wasn't used, the more temperate "annual message" preferred instead.

FDR changed that in 1942.

4. Ronald Reagan started the practice of inviting special guests

Reagan invited Congressional Budget Office employee Lenny Skutnik after he helped rescue a passenger from a 1982 plane crash that crashed into Washington, DC's 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River, killing 78 people. 

Reagan and every other future president would soon expand this practice. They not only included heroes, but ordinary Americans whose stories could help illustrate one of the speech's points. 

5. The State of the Union address can really matter — especially in foreign policy 

While the State of the Union has little effect on congressional legislation, it can have a lasting effect on foreign policy. In December 1823, President James Monroe established the Monroe Doctrine; in January 1941, FDR listed his "Four Freedoms" that the US would defend all over the world — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear; and in January 2002, George W. Bush delivered the first State of the Union after 9/11. In it, he named an "axis of evil" consisting of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.




Our friends at WallBuilders have put together a short presentation that highlights the two-century-old history of the State of the Union Address, focusing particularly on the one delivered in 1942 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.