The State of the Union address sounds like a very old American ritual, and it is Yet many of its features that we take for granted today were actually added by innovative presidents who decided to shake things up — sometimes for very diverse reasons.
There was Thomas Jefferson, who delivered the speech only in writing—probably because he was a terrible public speaker. There was Woodrow Wilson, who applied his political science theories to presidential rhetoric by revitalizing private speech. And there was Ronald Reagan, who took advantage of the television to show special guests sitting in the crowd.
So as President Joe Biden prepares for a familiar routine — standing before the vice president and House speaker to deliver his State of the State address — here’s a rundown of how drastically the speech has actually changed over time.
- 1 1) Thomas Jefferson started a 112-year tradition of delivering messages only in writing — and his stage fright may have been a factor.
- 2 2) When Woodrow Wilson revived the private speech to Congress in 1913, Washington, DC was surprised.
- 3 3) “State of the Union Address” is a fairly recent designation of the President’s message
- 4 4) Ronald Reagan started the practice of inviting special guests
- 5 5) State of the Union addresses can be really important — especially if there’s a foreign policy focus
1) Thomas Jefferson started a 112-year tradition of delivering messages only in writing — and his stage fright may have been a factor.
For the first 12 years of the United States, Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered presidential messages much like presidents do today—they traveled to Congress and gave oral speeches to them. (Throughout most of US history, what we now know as the State of the Union Address was called the president’s annual message.)
But when Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he decided to make a few changes—and instead of giving a speech, he sent only a written message. Publicly, he said such a change would take legislators less time, and prevent them from feeling pressured to come up with their own responses. Historian Daniel Walker Howe wrote that the scene of the address to Congress seemed to some Republicans “entirely reminiscent of King’s speech from the throne at the opening of Parliament”.
However, a 1995 article by Gerhard Kasper, then president of Stanford University, argues that Jefferson may have had a more personal reason for this change—his shame. Casper wrote:
“Forgetting the theatrics of presidential speeches, Jefferson incidentally avoided the personal embarrassment of enduring his notorious stage fright. Jefferson was ‘an anxious orator,’ pompous and articulate, whose first inaugural address was delivered in such a whisper that most in attendance said a The world could not hear.
Kasper concludes that Jefferson’s decision was probably based in part on a genuine desire to reform “which was coupled with a self-interested desire to avoid public speaking.”
2) When Woodrow Wilson revived the private speech to Congress in 1913, Washington, DC was surprised.
For more than a century, each president would follow Jefferson’s example and send only one written annual message to Congress. But a young political scientist named Woodrow Wilson was not convinced. Wilson had long been interested in how presidential speeches could be used more effectively, and in 1889, Wilson wrote that Jefferson should never have changed, since an oral presidential message would “permit a more public and responsible exchange of views among the executive.” . and Congress.”
When Wilson himself became president in 1913, he had an opportunity to put his ideas into action. As a special session of Congress was about to begin in April, Wilson decided that he would personally address them to promote his agenda. “The announcement shocked official Washington,” wrote Robert Craig in a book on Wilson. Craig writes that a contemporary press account portrayed Congress as “surprised” and that even members of Wilson’s cabinet doubted the wisdom of the move.
But the speech — which wasn’t technically an “Annual Message” — went well, and press coverage was positive. So when the traditional time for Wilson’s first message arrived in December, he also delivered the speech in person. He would deliver five more annual messages in person before reverting to written messages for his final two due to ill health. Presidents Coolidge and Hoover would mostly revert to written messages, but FDR would make in-person – and nationally broadcast – speeches the norm.
3) “State of the Union Address” is a fairly recent designation of the President’s message
Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution states that the President “from time to time shall give to Congress such information of the State of the Union, and make such recommendations to their consideration as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” But for nearly a century and a half, this catchy term “State of the Union” was not used as a title, the more anodyne “Annual Message” being preferred instead.
It was FDR who began to popularize the term “State of the Union”, especially in January 1942, shortly after the US entered World War II. According to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, FDR’s speech then “began to be informally called the ‘State of the Union’ message/address.” A few years later, President Truman officially named it the “State of the Union Address,” and that name has stuck ever since.
4) Ronald Reagan started the practice of inviting special guests
In January 1982, a plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, DC and into the Potomac River, killing 78 people. In the chaos, Congressional Budget Office employee Lenny Skutnik jumped into the river and helped rescue a passenger. So the Reagan administration invited Skutnik to the State of the Union address two weeks later — where the president personally praised him for his bravery. Members of Congress gave him a standing ovation as TV cameras panned to Skutnik (a caption read: “Plane Crash Hero”).
Reagan and future presidents would soon expand this practice to include not only heroes, but ordinary Americans whose stories (and faces) could help illustrate a point in a speech. DC wags would soon call these guests “Skutniks”. In the words of reporter Jeff Greenfield, “a scutnik is a human prop that a speaker uses to make a political point.”
5) State of the Union addresses can be really important — especially if there’s a foreign policy focus
Political pundits often exaggerate how influential presidential speeches can be. The president has little power to change the mind of Congress and win support for controversial bills. Even the public probably won’t move much—according to Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones, State of the Union speeches “rarely affect a president’s public position in a meaningful way, despite the amount of attention they receive.”
But some have truly stood the test of time — especially those that signal a major shift in foreign policy, where the president has more room to operate on his own.
In December 1823, President James Monroe used his seventh annual message to declare that the American continents “will not be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power.” This, of course, became known as the Monroe Doctrine and became the basis of American foreign policy for centuries. (Secretary of State John Kerry rejected this as recently as November 2013.)
In January 1941, FDR made a similar statement listing the “Four Freedoms” that the United States would protect around the world — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. American commitment to these policies was certainly inconsistent. But the Allies accepted them as war aims, and after the war, Eleanor Roosevelt worked to ensure that the new United Nations would support independence.
And a widely recognized State of the Union address in recent times was George W. Bush’s January 2002 address—the first given since 9/11. In it, he named an “axis of evil” consisting of North Korea, Iran and Iraq – the group he spent most of his time in. He said these states were pursuing weapons of mass destruction and were allied with terrorists and vowed: “America will do whatever it takes to ensure the security of our nation.” Bush biographer Peter Baker called it “perhaps the most memorable line of his presidency,” and it’s clear that the seeds of the Iraq War were planted in that speech.
Update, February 6, 2023: This article was originally published in 2015. It has been updated for recent state union addresses.