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State of the Union Addresses

Reading President's message, special session, 4/15/29 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The annual State of the Union address by the President of the United States to a joint session of the U.S. Congress has become a modern ritual that generates considerable discussion among newspaper and broadcast commentators, bloggers, and the Twitterverse.  This commentary covers a broad array of topics, including political analysis, comments on special guests, a discussion of where the Speaker of the House dined before the event, and even a fashion critique of the First Lady’s ensemble.  But, for many years, presidents provided Congress with annual written reports which were sedately read aloud in each chamber by a clerk.

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States of America states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  President Washington established the precedent of providing Congress with this report on an annual basis as well as appearing before the Congress in person.  He gave his first “Annual Message” to Congress on January 8, 1790, in the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall in New York City, where Congress met between 1789-1790.  President John Adams continued the tradition of in-person addresses to Congress, giving his last Annual Message to Congress on November 22, 1800, in the new capitol of WashingtonPresident Jefferson, however, believing that personal addresses to Congress were too reminiscent of royal pretensions, provided written reports to Congress.  His first report was provided on December 8, 1801.

President Coolidge delivering his first message to Congress (1923) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Presidents continued to provide annual written reports to Congress throughout the 19th century, though Presidents Harrison and Garfield provided Congress with only one report at the beginning of their terms.  In 1913, President Wilson returned to the tradition of giving the Annual Message to Congress in person, though because of his health he was not able to to address Congress in 1919 and 1920.  President Harding gave oral addresses to Congress in 1921 and 1922 and President Coolidge followed this pattern in 1923 but in 1924 he returned to the practice of providing Congress annual written reports, as did President HooverPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt reinstated the tradition of giving the Annual Message to a joint session of Congress that has continued until today, although on occasion presidents have returned to the practice of providing Congress with written reports.

President Truman’s address on January 6, 1947, was the first to be televised and marked the first time the President’s Annual Message was officially referred to as the State of the Union Address.

The Congressional Directory, which is published by the Government Printing Office, contains statistical information listing all the “Joint Sessions and Meetings, Addresses to the Senate or House and Inaugurations” beginning on page 544.  Page 543 includes a brief historical note about the State of the Union and addresses by foreign dignitaries.  The University of California, Santa Barbara hosts the American Presidency Project website, which provides additional information on the history of these addresses as well as links to the texts of the Annual Messages, Reports, and State of the Union Addresses.

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Margaret Wood. The author information has been updated to reflect that Margaret is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

2 Comments

  1. Ankan
    January 27, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Thanks for making such a cool post which is really very well written.

  2. Maria Biaggi
    January 28, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    It’s always a blessing for history fans like me to know historical and interesting facts regarding Presidential State of the Union address.

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