The first State of the Union address: way shorter, way less clapping
The first State of the Union address: way shorter, way less clapping George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. (Wikimedia Commons/White House/Flickr)
The first State of the Union address: way shorter, way less clapping
Lexile: 1350L

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On January 8, 1790, less than a year into his first presidential term, George Washington stood in front of a joint session of Congress in New York City and delivered what would be the first message to the United States Congress on the state of the union.

Of course, 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 or long peals of politically induced clapping between the president's sentences. To the likely appreciation of those present, Washington's speech was quite concise-it would be the shortest ever recited by a president, clocking in at a brief 1,089 words. (That compares pretty favorably to Harry Truman's whopping 25,000-word-long 1946 address.)

Despite his brevity, Washington covered a lot of ground, outlining his priorities for the burgeoning country and the tasks he wanted the House and the Senate to most carefully consider. He ranged from the importance of funding the common defense and challenges presented by "hostile" Native Americans, to the need to build new roads and the importance of uniformed currency.

Washington's address highlighted his philosophy in terms of what he thought made (and would make) the new nation great. For example, in encouraging support for schools, the president also pointed out the essential 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 (you know the one) by giving Congress the required "time to time" update at the beginning of the year, and so the tradition of a presidential address in January stuck. But the loose constitutional mandate allowed subsequent presidents to change up other major aspects of the "Annual Message," as it was called until 1946.

Starting with Thomas Jefferson in 1801, 19th century presidents skipped the speech altogether, instead sending in their updates in writing. (A clerk would typically recite it to Congress.) Then there were presidents, like William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, who didn't provide annual updates at all.

Delivering the address as a speech returned as standard practice in 1913, when Woodrow Wilson took to the podium as a way to support his presidential agenda. Even then, at least 22 State of the Union Addresses have since been delivered via writing, including Jimmy Carter's in 1981.

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Why do you think the State of the Union is so much longer today than it was when George Washington gave his first address?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • GraceR-pla
    10/25/2020 - 04:26 p.m.

    This article goes over George Washington's address to congress. It speaks of how short it was and some of the topics it discusses including schooling, the Native Americans, and currency among other topics. This connects to our class in that it is a concise, informational speech. The article goes over both the shortness and information of the speech compared to other, longer speeches in the future. This article helps to explain that longer speeches aren't nessissarly better nor more informational.

  • RachelK-pla
    10/20/2021 - 11:23 a.m.

    This article covers the history of the State of the Union address. This yearly speech is traditionally spoken by the president originating from the requirement in Article 2, section 3 of the Consitution. It requires that congress give an update to the people every year. The vague requirement eventually was named the State of the Union address in 1946. Some presidents have given the report through written documents, although most of them orally address the people. George Washington is known to have given the shortest address coming in at a little over 1,000 words. I think that more presidents should follow in Washingtons' footsteps and prepare a concise and understandable address. The purpose of the address is to inform the American people, so why are we making this address as long as 25,000 words? More often than not a lot of the address is not understandable to the average American. As a young adult, I would love to be informed of the countries goals and plans for the upcoming year. A lengthy and wordy speech is not what I am looking for. I think that a simple address like Washington would benefit most Americans and able them to be apart of the democracy and know what is going on.

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