The pomp and pageantry of the State of the Union as we currently know it is largely a 20th Century invention. Up 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 tradition of the State of the Union has its roots in the U.S. Constitution, which 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) But, the form that this takes has varied throughout the nation’s history.
The first two American presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered their annual message as a speech to Congress. However, President Thomas Jefferson found the monarchical trappings in the Presidential entourage arriving at the Capitol for a grand address distasteful and departed from this practice in 1801 when he delivered his annual presidential message in writing. (Jefferson was also a notoriously poor orator, which might have had something to do with it too.) Up until the early-20th Century, Presidents followed Jefferson’s model of delivering their annual message as written reports. These were often lengthy bureaucratic documents with tables, charts, and graphs that bear little resemblance to the grand rhetorical performances of the modern State of the Union address.
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. Still, some argue that it was President Harry Truman that delivered the first true State of the Union. Truman’s 1947 address was the first to be called a “State of the Union” and also the first to be broadcast on television.
With the exception of Jimmy Carter’s last State of the Union in 1981, which was delivered in writing, the annual presidential address has followed this pattern ever since, although some Presidents have added to it. According to Anne Pluta, a political science professor at Rowan College who studies Presidential rhetoric, Dwight Eisenhower’s 1959 address was the first to use the now familiar “my fellow Americans” opening line. “Prior to that,” Pluta wrote in a 2015 article for Presidential Studies Quarterly, “the State of the Union was addressed to ‘Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives,’ ‘Members of Congress,’ or some variation thereof.” Although Truman’s speech was the first to be televised, Lyndon Johnson began the tradition of delivering the State of the Union as a prime time address in 1965.
Like many institutions of American government, 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. But, there are no hard and fast rules for how it must be done. “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.”