A Brief History of the State of the Union Address

Longest, shortest, and a host of firsts for the annual address.


President Obama this evening will perform one of the specific duties charged him by the Constitution. Article II, Section 3 mandates 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." It's a tradition which dates, of course, from George Washington, but it has evolved enormously since the Father of Our Country gave his first report to Congress, in 1790. Here are some firsts, facts, and other trivia about the State of the Union:

Washington delivered the first annual report (not yet referred to as a "State of the Union") before a joint session of Congress, meeting in New York City on January 8, 1790. It was the shortest, at least in terms of word-count, at 1,089. The first president delivered all eight of his annual messages orally, as did his successor, John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson decided that the president lecturing Congress was too "kingly"--reminiscent of the British "speech from the throne"--and started sending annual written messages to Congress, a tradition which would hold through the next two dozen administrations (though two of those presidents--William Henry Harrison and James Garfield--died before they had the chance to deliver a report to Congress). [See a slide show of the 10 worst presidents.]

The written tradition held until Woodrow Wilson's first report in 1913. He was struggling, as Robert Lehrman noted yesterday in the Christian Science Monitor, to escape the shadow of vanquished presidential opponent Teddy Roosevelt and hit on the idea of delivering the speech in person as a way to distinguish himself. "SENATORS FROWN ON WILSON'S VISIT" the New York Times headlined, adding, "Reading is Compared to Speech From Throne." Nevertheless, Wilson's appearance went over well. "CONGRESS CHEERS GREET WILSON," the next day's Washington Post reported. "Event free of pomp!" Thrilled, Wilson bragged to his wife: "I put one over on Teddy."

Wilson delivered his first six messages in person, but the final two--after he had suffered a debilitating stroke--were sent in written form. Warren Harding (the first president to employ a full-time speechwriter) gave both of his in person, making him the first GOP president to orally deliver such an address. And "Silent" Cal Coolidge gave his first orally--at 6,706 words the longest such message ever spoken. It was the first ever broadcast over the radio. He reverted to form after that, delivering written messages for the remainder of his tenure in office. Herbert Hoover did likewise.

[Read: Scenes From the Writing of State of the Union.]

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 who first called the speech a "State of the Union" address (though that name didn't enter common usage until 1947 (that same year Harry Truman delivered the first such speech to be broadcast on television). This time the tradition stuck. FDR delivered 11 of his 12 "SOTUs," as White House insiders sometimes call them, in person. And in the case of the last, he delivered an accompanying radio address to the nation. Truman delivered 6 of his 8 in person (writing the first and last) and Eisenhower delivered 7 of his 9 in person, and like FDR, gave a radio address to accompany his written report in 1956.

In fact, Eisenhower's 1961 address was one of the last times a president forewent the chance to speak to Congress. Richard Nixon (who thought the State of the Union tended too much toward laundry lists anyway) skipped the 1973 address; and lame duck Jimmy Carter didn't speak to Congress in 1981 but did send a written report, which at 33,667 words is the longest such address in history. Over all, 77 out of 221 such messages have been delivered in person. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

In the mean time, Lyndon Johnson had struck on the idea in 1966 that a president would get much better exposure if, instead of speaking to Congress in the early afternoon as was the tradition, he gave a prime time address. That move prompted congressional Republicans to request time of their own to respond. State of the Union addresses have almost invariably been followed by opposition responses since. On eight occasions, the respondents included a future president or past or future vice president (Gerald Ford in 1966 and 1967, Ford and Rep. George Bush of Texas in 1968, ex-VP Hubert Humphrey in 1975, Al Gore in 1982, Joe Biden in 1983 and 1984, and Bill Clinton in 1985).

Ronald Reagan in 1982, who inaugurated the modern tradition of having "heroes" in the first lady's box when he had Lenny Skutnik--who had pulled a survivor from the icy Potomac River after an Air Florida flight had crashed there. Since then the tradition has taken on a life of its own. Clinton gave the longest State of the Union addresses--no surprise. What may surprise is that his longest by word count--9,190 words in 1995, the most words spoken by a president in a State of the Union address--was not his longest in minutes. Clinton's 2000 address, while a mere 7,452 words long, took 1 hour, 28 minutes and 49 seconds to deliver. Hopefully President Obama's speech this evening will not be so long (his 2010 address was 1 hour, 9 minutes, 20 seconds). [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

George W. Bush's 2002 address ("axis of evil") was the first such speech livecast on the House's website, and his 2004 speech the first broadcast in high definition. This year's address from President Obama is, as far as I can tell, the first to have its own full scale web presence.

For more, I commend the invaluable American Presidency Project at UCSB, a 2006 Congressional Research Service report on the topic, and of course White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, by yours truly.

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