“From time to time,” the Constitution instructs, the president shall give to Congress “information” relating to “the State of the Union.” On the surface, that seems clear enough. But a surprisingly fluid history lies behind one of our most familiar democratic rituals. What kind of information? How often?
George Washington, who delivered an “Annual Message” every year beginning in January 1790, took those questions seriously. But later presidents did not always follow his precedent. Thomas Jefferson abandoned the practice of speaking before Congress, instead sending written messages. Not until 1913 did a president (Woodrow Wilson) return to address Congress in person. The phrase “State of the Union” did not become the official title of the speech until 1947, the first year it was televised. As viewership grew, so did the length of the speech. The result is often as exhausting as it is edifying, with seemingly all known federal officials (save the designated survivor) crammed into the House chamber and all known policies crammed into the text. Still, there are a few memorable examples of a State of the Union address with lasting relevance.
Abraham Lincoln, 1862
Lincoln’s gift for language shone through this address, which achieved bursts of poetry amid long stretches of prose about the war effort and dry topics such as the mineral resources of the western territories. “Last best hope,” which gave a glimpse of the Gettysburg Address to come, is still cited routinely by Lincoln lovers. A forgotten section of the address speculated on how large the United States would be in 1930.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941
For that year’s annual message, FDR did something almost unthinkable. By defining the “Four Freedoms,” he soared out of the usual tedious roster of domestic initiatives and gave a darkened world a bit of candlelight. As he spoke, Adolf Hitler was ascendant, yet there were tremendous political pressures on Roosevelt to keep the United States out of the war. To inspire the world and unite Americans, he needed a memorable concept that would ring out long after the speech was over. A single page in the National Archives holds an early draft by speechwriter Samuel Rosenman that outlined four basic human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. From that sheet, we can trace a trajectory that defined the United States for half a century, including the global crusade to crush the Axis, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and America’s long history as a beacon to the oppressed.
Ronald Reagan, 1982
With his telegenic looks and communicator instincts, Reagan was a natural on the grand stage of the State of the Union. In 1982, he pioneered a now-standard practice by introducing a hero to the crowd. Lenny Skutnik was a government employee who had jumped into the icy Potomac to rescue a drowning woman two weeks earlier. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Since then, one of the most lively moments of any State of the Union occurs when the cameras pan over to the presidential box to see this year’s heroes, now known as “Lenny Skutniks.”
As with so many things, Washington blazed the path for all others to follow. However, by writing a speech that was short, intelligible and relatively apolitical, he set a standard so high that it’s unachievable — at least so far — in the modern era.