#SOTU: A Brief History

John Boehner

On Tuesday night, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address—a tradition that goes all the way back to George Washington.

The Constitution 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.” Washington delivered the first address to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790. His successor, John Adams, also addressed Congress in person. But Thomas Jefferson, who became president in 1801, thought all the pomp and circumstance smacked of monarchy. So he began the tradition of sending a written statement in lieu of a speech. For the next 113 years, every subsequent president did not dare disturb Jefferson’s precedent.

Until Woodrow Wilson. In 1913, the new president broke with tradition by going before Congress to deliver his address. At that time, the president’s address was still known as the “annual message.” He gave it in December, when the new Congress was first seated. It took some time for the Democrat Wilson’s new practice to catch on. His successor, the Republican Warren Harding, gave two addresses in person. But Harding’s successor, the taciturn Calvin Coolidge, whose nickname was “Silent Cal,” gave only one, and he continued to send written reports.

In 1933, the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and it moved the new Congress’s start date to January. As a result, the president began giving his speech at the beginning of the year. President Franklin Roosevelt once again revived the practice of speaking in person, and in the early 1940s, his speeches became informally known as the State of the Union address. (In 1947, that became the official title.) Roosevelt went on to give the most State of the Union addresses of any president in history. Between his time and now, several presidents have occasionally sent written messages—the last was Jimmy Carter’s 1981 message. But the expectation is that the president will appear in person.

Since then, the State of the Union address has continued to evolve. The first television broadcast of a State of the Union address was in 1947, under President Harry Truman. In 1966, the television networks began giving the opposition party air time to broadcast a response to the president’s address. Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and Congressman Gerald Ford (R-MI) delivered the first response. And President Ronald Reagan began the tradition of acknowledging in the speech special guests in the House chamber.

To prepare for the speech, the House and Senate approve a concurrent resolution that sets aside a day and time for a joint session of Congress “for receiving such communication as the President of the United States shall be pleased to make to them.” The president delivers the address in the House chamber, where members of the House, Senate, Supreme Court, cabinet, and diplomatic corps sit to hear the president’s remarks.

In short, the State of the Union address is a storied tradition, a grand occasion, and a great part of the American history. If you’d like to learn more, follow @USHouseHistory and #SOTUHistory on Twitter before and during the night of the address. You can also read more about the history of the State of the Union address on the House historian’s website here

Stay tuned for more on this year’s State of the Union, including a preview of the Speaker’s guests and a watch guide, with information on the Republican address given by Governor Nikki Haley and the @GOPEspanol address given by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL).

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