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What is the State of the Union Address? – Lesson


U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt (Photo by: History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The SOTU is a tradition that goes all the way back to England and continues in America today.

According to the U.S. Constitution, 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.”

Today, the president normally delivers the State of the Union to Congress and the American people with a speech given near the beginning of each year, normally in January of February. The goal of the speech is for the U.S. president to update lawmakers and the public on how things are going in the nation, as well as what steps the country should take next.

How Did the State of the Union Start?

The first State of the Union (SOTU) address was given by the first president, George Washington. Only, back then, it was known as the Annual Message, and it kept that name from 1790 to around 1946. It was a tradition taken from England, in which the king gave “a speech from the throne” to open new sessions of Parliament. Washington gave the shortest SOTU so far with just 1,089 words. He set the precedent that presidents would provide information on the country’s affairs to Congress every year.

The second president, Thomas Jefferson, did not approve of giving in-person SOTU speeches because it reminded him too much of the British monarch’s speech from the throne. On December 8, 1801, he had his private secretary deliver copies of his message to Congress instead of giving it himself. Some historians believe the real reason he didn’t give the speech in person was because he was not a good public speaker, so he preferred to send a formal letter.


President Bill Clinton Gives State of the Union Address (Photo by Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images)

It wasn’t until December 2, 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson gave the Annual Message in person that the tradition began again, only it was a combination of oral and written reports. It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who started giving the speech at the beginning of the year. He used the term “State of the Union” to refer to his 1934 report, and the Annual Message officially became the State of the Union address in 1947.

How the SOTU Has Changed

Earlier messages from the presidents tended to be about budget requests and just a general report on how the country’s economy was doing. But, during the 20th century, Congress required more information in the reports.

As outlined in the National Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the Budget Message has to be given to Congress no more than two weeks after Congress convenes in January.

The Employment Act of 1946 added the requirement of an Economic Report, but it has a flexible delivery date.

Since 1966, there has usually been a second speech held after the State of the Union address. This is given by the president’s opponents as a rebuttal. For example, if the president is a Democrat, then the Republican Party will give a short response after the SOTU speech. While today it’s common for the president to deliver State of the Union to Congress in person, the rebuttal speech is normally filmed in a studio.

Technology changed the way the president delivered the SOTU. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge was the first commander-in-chief to give the message via national radio broadcast. In 1947, President Harry Truman gave the first television broadcast of the State of the Union. In 2002, President George W. Bush gave the first webcast on the internet, and in 2004, he gave the first high-definition television broadcast.

SOTU Records

The average 19th-century Annual Message was around 10,000 words, while in the late 20th century the SOTU addresses dropped to about 5,000 words. We already know that George Washington gave the shortest address so far, but here are some other interesting records:

  • President Jimmy Carter has the record for the longest address, in 1981, with 33,667 words (written). President Bill Clinton comes in second with 9,190 words in 1995 (spoken).
  • President Franklin Roosevelt holds the record for most SOTU addresses given. He gave 12 messages and ten of those were in-person to Congress.
  • Presidents William Henry Harrison and James Garfield have the lowest SOTU numbers, having given zero addresses to Congress. Harrison was only in office for a month before he died of pneumonia, while Garfield was assassinated just a few months after being elected. President Zachary Taylor gave one SOTU speech, but he was in office for less than a year before dying of acute gastroenteritis.

The State of the Union address is a chance for presidents to update not just Congress but also the American people on how the country is doing economically and with other issues. It is also a time to explain their achievements while in office and comment on national concerns and possible solutions.