Today’s post comes from Christine Blackerby, an Outreach Specialist at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered a speech at Federal Hall in New York City. This speech, called his first annual message to Congress (which we now refer to as the State of the Union), was short—in fact, it remains the shortest one ever.
In it, Washington touched on several subjects to which he recommended that Congress give its attention, including national defense, naturalization, uniform weights and measures, promotion of education, and support of the public credit.
Fully aware of the enormity of the task in front of them, Washington’s last sentence speaks to the heart of their endeavor:
The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed.—And I shall derive great satisfaction from a co-operation with you, in the pleasing though arduous task of ensuring to our fellow citizens the blessings, which they have a right to expect, from a free, efficient and equal Government.
Washington gave this speech to fulfill the President’s obligation outlined in Article II, Section 3, Clause 1, of the Constitution:
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”
The Constitution does not specify how frequently the President should share this information. As he did on so many other issues, Washington set the precedent that this message would be delivered to Congress once a year.
But Washington’s actions in another respect were not precedent setting. Washington appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his annual messages in a speech. Second President John Adams followed suit. But the Third President, Thomas Jefferson, set a new tradition when he sent his messages in writing and did not appear before Congress.
That precedent stuck until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress.
Before Wilson, the annual messages were mostly a report to Congress of the activities of the Executive branch. But after Wilson, and the increased attention the speech received, it became a launching pad for Presidential initiatives and was used to raise support for the President’s legislative agenda.
During Harry Truman’s Presidency, the speech came to be widely known as the State of the Union address instead of the annual message.
Several annual messages stand out:
In 165 handwritten pages, President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Annual Message covered multiple topics, but it is remembered for his words relating to Native Americans.
In what became known as the “Indian Removal” message, Jackson discussed the policy of moving Native Americans from the southeast portion of the nation to beyond the Mississippi River to what became Oklahoma. He wrote:
It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.
President Abraham Lincoln was known for words that reverberate through the decades. His December 1, 1862, message became known as the “Fiery Trial” message:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
This message was delivered exactly one month before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.
Lincoln ended the message on the subject of slavery:
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.
President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 State of the Union address was originally scheduled for January 28, 1986. However, that day the Challenger space shuttle exploded. Reagan postponed his speech for a week in response to the accident. On February 4, Reagan began his message by paying tribute to “the brave seven” Challenger crew members.
Later, he said:
So, yes, this nation remains fully committed to America’s space program. We’re going forward with our shuttle flights. We’re going forward to build our space station.
Since Washington’s time, the Constitution’s command that “from time to time” the President shall share information with Congress has meant, and continues to mean, the delivery of the State of the Union message once a year.
Go here for more information on historical State of the Union Messages.