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The History Behind the State of the Union: from Jefferson to Wilson’s Modern Day Show

Estado de la Unión

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“Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!” is perhaps the most famous cry in American politics. It is heard once a year exclusively for the event known as the State of the Union. It is a speech given by the president to the full Congress and attended by the entire cabinet, members of the Supreme Court and many invited guests.

The tradition was started by George Washington in 1790 and carried on through the centuries. Hours after a new edition by Joe Biden, this is the story behind the State of the Union.

The origin of the speech is none other than the Constitution itself. In the third section of the second article rest the following words about the president: “He 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.”  

Washington was the first president to deliver an address to Congress, although it had not yet been named as it is known today. John Adams was not far behind, shaping the tradition. Both men brought the Constitution’s “from time to time” down to earth, as they appeared annually on Capitol Hill with their pile of papers.

The custom was soon broken and the man responsible was Thomas Jefferson. The third president was not a keen fan of this speech, preferring to be known as a writer rather than an orator. Indeed, there were only two public speeches recorded during his presidency. He wanted nothing to do with going to Congress, so for each State of the Union, he sent the text to be read live by someone else.

The history behind the State of the Union: from Jefferson to Wilson's modern show
Woodrow Wilson was the president responsible for shaping the State of the Union as it is known today (Library of Congress).

Subsequent presidents took up Jefferson’s gauntlet, sent their speeches by hand, and were never seen outside Capitol Hill. Again, there was another president who chose to change the dynamic.

The modern State of the Union

Woodrow Wilson came to power in 1913 by taking advantage of a split in the Republican Party. With “Teddy” Roosevelt and William Howard Taft running separately, the Democrat became the first of his party in the White House since Grover Cleveland.

Wilson picked up where Washington left off and returned in person to Congress. He was responsible for establishing the modern modus operandi, with a triumphant entrance at the beginning of the speech. This dynamic was born just months after he took office, in December 1913.

Since then, the only president who did not give his State of the Union address in person was Herbert Hoover, who also did not enjoy public speaking and preferred to send everything in writing.

Until 1923, it was common for Americans to learn what the president said over the next few days or weeks, as there was no immediacy in the news as we know it today.

Harry Truman delivered the first televised State of the Union in history (Truman Library Institute).

It was the first time the speech was broadcast by radio to most of the country. Thus, the first voice millions heard giving the speech was that of Calvin Coolidge, who was making his debut at the podium. Years later, in 1947, Harry Truman became the first president to appear on television in Congress.  

The event was known as the “Annual Message” from its inception until 1946, when the name officially turned to State of the Union.

What is the State of the Union address for?

As well as its name and dynamics, its purpose and importance also varied over the centuries. For example, according to the House of Representatives website, before the 19th century “the annual message was both a lengthy administrative report on the various departments of the executive branch and a budget and economic message.”  

Everything changed with Wilson, who turned the speech into a “platform for the president to rally support for his agenda.” Of course, this is also accompanied by some very thoughtful and delicious rhetoric, capable of sweetening anyone’s ear.

The drafting of the speech can take months, plus a few more hours during which the president rehearses live with his team. Legend has it that by the time the head of state is finally on the podium in front of Congress, his aides have memorized the entire speech.  

Joaquín Núñez es licenciado en comunicación periodística por la Universidad Católica Argentina. Se especializa en el escenario internacional y en la política nacional norteamericana. Confeso hincha de Racing Club de Avellaneda. Contacto: [email protected] // Joaquín Núñez has a degree in journalistic communication from the Universidad Católica Argentina. He specializes in the international scene and national American politics. Confessed fan of Racing Club of Avellaneda. Contact: [email protected]