President Wilson delivers the first modern State of the Union address in 1913.
President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress Dec. 13, 1913. (Library of Congress)

The State of the Union, with all its pomp and pageantry, is largely a 20th Century invention. Until 1947, what we now call the State of the Union Address was officially known as the Annual Message. And, it wasn’t always a speech either.

The U.S. Constitution dictates that 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.” (U.S. Const. Art. II, Sec. 3) The form that this takes has varied throughout the nation’s history.

The President’s ‘Annual Message’

The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered their annual message as a speech to Congress. However, President Thomas Jefferson found the monarchical trappings of a grand address distasteful. When Jefferson took office in 1801, he delivered his annual presidential messages as a written report. (Jefferson was also a notoriously poor orator, which might have had something to do with it.)

Throughout the 19th Century, Presidents followed Jefferson’s model of delivering their annual message as written reports. These were often lengthy bureaucratic documents that bear little resemblance to the grand rhetorical performances of the modern State of the Union address.

The Modern State of the Union

President Woodrow Wilson, seeking to refashion the Presidency into a less impersonal institution, revived the tradition of the president’s annual message as a speech before a joint session of Congress in 1913. Truman’s 1947 address was the first to be called a “State of the Union” and also the first to be broadcast on television.

Dwight Eisenhower’s 1959 address was the first to use the familiar “my fellow Americans” opening line. “Prior to that,” says Anne Pluta, a professor at Rowan College, President’s addressed the speech “to ‘Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives,’ ‘Members of Congress,’ or some variation thereof.” Later, Lyndon Johnson began the tradition of delivering the State of the Union as a prime time address in 1965.

The State of the Union has been shaped by the forces of history and technology as well as the personalities of the men who occupied the Presidential office. “There is no law on the subject,” Senator George G. Vest said in an 1895 speech to the Jefferson Club of St. Louis. “It is a matter of taste and convenience, a question which every President can settle for himself.”

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