With all the pomp and pageantry surrounding the president’s State of the Union address, one might think its traditions date back to earliest days of the republic. There’s the House Sergeant-at-Arms bellowing out the arrival of the president, as if microphones were never invented. There’s the president handing paper copies of his speech to the House speaker and vice president, as if that couldn’t have just been an email.
And, oh God, the applause. The unending waves of applause that double the length of the speech – for the first lady, for whoever is seated next to the first lady, for the troops and the Supreme Court and the Cabinet. The one-party-only applause, the are-we-all-gonna-clap-for-this-oops-I-guess-not applause, and of course the five-minute standing-o’s for every single expression of patriotism.
Weirdly, much of the history behind the State of the Union is modern. Here’s a decoder ring:1. Why we have a State of the Union
Because it says so in the Constitution. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 says 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 first president, George Washington, interpreted “from time to time” to mean annually, and “give to the Congress” to mean make a speech before a joint session of the House and Senate. He gave the first State of the Union, then called the Annual Message, on Jan. 8, 1790, in the temporary capitol building in New York. It was 1,100 words long (shorter than this article) and apparently pretty dry: Washington listed things the country should do, like having a joint military, common currency and uniform naturalization procedures.2. Why the State of the Union is given as a speech
This actually could have been an email.
The second president, John Adams, carried on Washington’s speech tradition, but his successor, Thomas Jefferson, did not, submitting an annual message in print instead. Officially, the reason for stopping the speech was that Jefferson hated anything that smacked of monarchy, but The ‘s Karen Tumulty points out that Jefferson was also afraid of public speaking, and, plus, getting around back then in Washington, D.C., was a mud-caked drag.
For more than a century afterward, all presidents submitted the annual message in text form only, and there is nothing stopping presidents from going back to that tradition, whether by email blast, Twitter thread or in cursive on a parchment scroll.
President Woodrow Wilson brought back the speechifying in December 1913. A former government professor, Wilson thought the separation of powers in the Constitution was a little too strict, and as president he looked for opportunities to increase presidential power and set the political agenda in Congress.
Where did all the strange State of the Union traditions come from?