The first State of the Union address: way shorter, way less clapping
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The date was January 8, 1790. George Washington was president. It was less than a year into his first term. He stood in front of a joint session of Congress. He was in New York City. He delivered an address. It would be the first message to the United States Congress. It was on the state of the union.
This was long before the kind of pomp and circumstance we see at modern State of the Union addresses. There wasn't any mention of honored guests. There were no long moments of clapping. Washington's speech was quite short. It would be the shortest ever given by a president. It was only 1,089 words. That compares pretty favorably to one by Harry Truman. He gave one that was 25,000 words long. That was his 1946 address.
Washington covered a lot of ground. That was despite his brevity. He outlined his priorities. These were for the growing country. He shared the tasks he wanted the House and the Senate to consider. He talked about the importance of funding. It was for the common defense. He spoke of the challenges presented by "hostile" Native Americans. He discussed the need to build new roads. And he spoke of the importance of uniformed currency.
Washington's address highlighted his philosophy. He shared what he thought made (and would make) the new nation great. He encouraged support for schools. The president pointed out the importance of knowledge.
"Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impressions so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours it is proportionably essential."
Washington thought it best to comply with Article II, Section 3, Clause 1. He gave Congress the required "time to time" update. This is given at the beginning of the year. The tradition of a presidential address in January stuck. But constitutional mandate was loose. It allowed subsequent presidents to change up other major aspects of the "Annual Message." That's what it was called until 1946.
Nineteenth century presidents skipped the speech. This started with Thomas Jefferson. That was in 1801. They sent their updates in writing. A clerk would typically recite it to Congress. Then there were presidents who didn't provide annual updates. Those presidents included William Henry Harrison. It also included Zachary Taylor.
Delivering the address as a speech returned as standard practice in 1913. Woodrow Wilson took to the podium. It was a way to support his presidential agenda. At least 22 State of the Union Addresses have since been delivered via writing. This includes Jimmy Carter's in 1981.