Mr. Speaker! The President of the United States!

Tonight, with these words, the president will enter the chamber of the House of Representatives to deliver his annual State of the Union address.  As with other things in our democracy, the media have given the speech a more ceremonial significance, endlessly examining what the president will say and how he’ll say it, how members of Congress will react or respond, and how outside groups will mobilize to defend or repudiate what is said.  Still, this event (or rather role) is called for by the U.S. Constitution, so it is important.  Let us look at the origins of this address as well as some of the traditions surrounding it.

The provision of the Constitution that provides for the State of the Union is Article II, Section 3, which states, “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  In other words:  every once in a while (it does not have to be annual, based on the language) the president should let the Congress know what the heck’s going on with the country and tell them what he thinks they should do.  Or in more scholarly terms, the State of the Union requires the president to report on the condition of the nation and allows him to relate to Congress his national priorities and legislative agenda.  The State of the Union was modeled after Great Britain’s Speech from the Throne, during which the monarch read a prepared speech to a complete session of Parliament.  The speech would outline the government’s agenda for the coming session.

President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address on January 8, 1790, in New York City (then the capital).  President Thomas Jefferson did not deliver his State of the Union addresses in person before the Congress, purportedly because he believed that doing so was too much like a monarch.  However, some historians speculate, based on contemporary accounts, that he may have discontinued the practice because he did not have a particularly strong voice and did not like to speak in public.  Can you relate?  It’s been said that more people fear speaking in public than fear dying.  Instead, Jefferson sent a written address to the Congress to be read by a clerk.  That practice continued for 112 years until President Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice of delivering the address in person (Check out the Fast Facts section at the bottom for more info about how the State of the Union has been given over the years).

Because the speech is delivered in the Capitol during a joint session of Congress, the president must technically be invited by Congress to enter the House Chamber and then address the session.  Traditionally, Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also attend the address.  Due to the need to provide continuity in the line of succession in case of a catastrophic event, one member of the Cabinet and a few members of Congress do not attend the speech, but are located in undisclosed locations for its duration.

Now you know a little bit more about the history of the State of the Union address.  Is there anything you where surprised by?  Do you think it’s a big waste of time and presidents should just send the written report to Congress, or do you think that the speech is more for the people around the country than for members of Congress?  What do you think President Obama should talk about (or should have talked about if you read this after the speech)?  Join the Discourse!

Fast Facts:

  • The first speech to be broadcast on the radio was President Coolidge’s 1923 address.
  • The first speech to be televised was President Truman’s address in 1965.
  • President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address was the first to be delivered in the evening.
  • President Carter was the last to deliver a written State of the Union address to Congress in 1981.
  • President Reagan is the only president to have postponed a State of the Union.  He did so January 28, 1986, and instead addressed the nation on the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.  He gave his State of the Union one week later.
  • The first address to be broadcast live on the internet was President Clinton’s in 1997.
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