From Time to Time: The State of the Union


Close of the Constitutional Convention-Philadelphia-September, 1787


Tomorrow night we shall observe the federal Constitution in action as President Obama delivers the State of the Union message. This is mandated by the Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution which declares: “He [the president] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Note the language–”from time to time” it says. Can the president do it more than once a year? Yes. Can the president do it less than once a year? Yes. The president must do it from time to time. Why then do we see it happen once a year and why at this time of year?

Like organized religions, American politics are strong on tradition. President George Washington delivered the first state of the union in January of 1790 as the Congress met in New York City. He then delivered the second one that same year, in December of 1790. After that Washington did it only once a year as did his successor, John Adams. Thus began the tradition of once a year, deemed sufficient to satisfy the Constitutional mandate of “from time to time.”

Washington concluded his first State of the Union speech with these words: “The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you [the Congress] in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.” I wonder how many in the present Congress can hear and understand these words.

Washington and Adams delivered their addresses in person as speeches to the Congress. However, Thomas Jefferson, the third president, wrote out his State of the Union message and sent it over to be read aloud to the Congress. While Jefferson wrote eloquently, he was a bit bashful and hated public speaking. That’s part of the reason John Adams asked Jefferson to do the principle drafting of the Declaration of Independence while Adams used his lawyerly oratorical skills to sway the Continental Congress to adopt it. [See pp. 107 to 129 in David McCullough’s John Adams (2002 paperback edition) and American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence (1997) by Pauline Maier.] By reputation, a great conversationalist, Jefferson preferred dinner conversation or intimate Cabinet meetings. The Cabinet was much smaller then than it is today. Jefferson enjoyed many dinner conversations with the sparkling and politically savvy Abigail Adams. Oh, to eavesdrop on those exchanges! [On Mr Jefferson’s complex character, I highly recommend Joseph Ellis’ brilliant American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996). For another aspect of Jefferson’s complex character, a reader can look with profit at the work of the fine Canadian scholar, Reginald Stuart, The Half-way Pacifist: Thomas Jefferson’s View of War (1978). And for conflicting looks at Jefferson’s views on slavery, one can read the fairly sympathetic The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (1995) by John Chester Miller versus the intensely critical article by the fine legal scholar Paul Finkelman, “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 102 (2), April, 1994, 193- 228.]

Thomas Jefferson-1800

Jefferson opened the last paragraph of his 1801 message with an echo of Washington. “The prudence and temperance of your [the Congress] discussions will promote within your own walls that conciliation which so much befriends rational conclusion, and by its example will encourage among our constituents that progress of opinion which is tending to unite them in object and in will.” I wonder if the Chief Executive calls for “prudence and temperance” in this Congress if anyone would heed.

Hence, from Jefferson’s administration until 1913, the presidents, even eloquent speakers like Abraham Lincoln, sent their State of the Union messages in writing to the Congress. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson caused a minor storm of controversy when he returned to the Washington-Adams tradition of a personal appearance before a joint session of Congress. Wilson opened his speech on December 2, 1913, by saying:

“In pursuance of my constitutional duty to ‘give to the Congress information of the state of the Union,’ I take the liberty of addressing you on several matters which ought, as it seems to me, particularly to engage the attention of your honorable bodies, as of all who study the welfare and progress of the Nation. I shall ask your indulgence if I venture to depart in some degree from the usual custom of setting before you in formal review the many matters which have engaged the attention and called for the action of the several departments of the Government or which look to them for early treatment in the future, because the list is long, very long, and would suffer in the abbreviation to which I should have to subject it. I shall submit to you the reports of the heads of the several departments, in which these subjects are set forth in careful detail, and beg that they may receive the thoughtful attention of your committees and of all Members of the Congress who may have the leisure to study them. Their obvious importance, as constituting the very substance of the business of the Government, makes comment and emphasis on my part unnecessary.”

Since 1913, every president has delivered the State of the Union message in a personal appearance before Congress, with only a few exceptions of an occasional written message.

Withe the exception of Washington’s first State of the Union, early presidents gave these messages in the fall, anytime between October and December until by President Andrew Jackson’s administration December became the customary month for delivery of the State of the Union message. This continued to 1934, when the change mandated by the ratification of the 20th Amendment in January of 1933 moved the opening of Congress from early March to early January. Since 1934, the State of the Union address has been delivered to Congress in January or February. The 20th Amendment declares in the first two articles as follows:

“1. The terms of the President and the Vice-President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

2. The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3rd day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.”

This amendment moved presidential inauguration from March to January as well. Thus in 1937 President Franklin D Roosevelt became the first one to take the oath of office in January instead of March. Other changes which gave us the format for the State of the Union to which we have become accustomed were President Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 message which was the first to be broadcast on radio, President Harry S. Truman’s 1947 message, the first to be broadcast on television and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s in 1965, the first to be delivered in the evening.

Some critics complain that the State of the Union messages are too “political.” For good or ill, such content is also included in the Constitutional mandate. Article II requires the president “to recommend to their [Congress’] Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” So especially in an election year we can expect what sounds like a party platform. However, I must note that can be done with verve and rhetorical skill. Consider two examples, the first from Lincoln’s December, 1862 State of the Union, the second from FDR’s message in January 1941.

President Lincoln--March, 1865

Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, concluded his written message of December 1st, anticipating that the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect in one month, New Year’s Day of 1863, with these words: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must dis-enthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trialthrough which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”

Much of this language the composer Aaron Copeland included in his masterful 1942 composition, “A Lincoln Portrait.”

President Roosevelt--c1937

In January, 1941, much of the world was at war and FDR was garnering support for the remaining free democracies, most especially Great Britain. For citizens of the United States, he called on Congress to expand unemployment compensation, help to the elderly and better access to health care for all citizens. The last part of his State of the Union speech concluded with this now well-known section. “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression– everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way– everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want– which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear– which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor– anywhere in the world.That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception–the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear. Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change–in a perpetual peaceful revolution–a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions–without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society. This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”

Our present Chief Executive has the oratorical skill of Lincoln and FDR. Personally, I think that is one of the reasons that the opposition party attacks him so repeatedly. My hope is that tomorrow I will hear echoes of Lincoln and FDR.


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