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: 820L

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The date was January 8, 1790. It was less than a year into George Washington's first presidential term when he stood in front of a joint session of Congress. He was in New York City. He delivered what would be the first message to the United States Congress 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 peals of politically induced clapping between the president's sentences. Washington's speech was quite concise-it would be the shortest ever recited by a president. It clocked in at a brief 1,089 words. That compares pretty favorably to Harry Truman's whopping 25,000-word-long 1946 address.

Washington covered a lot of ground. That was despite his brevity. He outlined his priorities for the burgeoning country. He shared the tasks he wanted the House and the Senate to most carefully consider. He talked about the importance of funding the common defense and the challenges presented by "hostile" Native Americans. He discussed the need to build new roads and 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. For example, he encouraged support for schools. The president 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. He gave Congress the required "time to time" update 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 altogether. This started with Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Instead they sent their updates in writing. A clerk would typically recite it to Congress. Then there were presidents who didn't provide annual updates at all. Those presidents included William Henry Harrison and 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.

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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

  • JacobM-dur
    2/18/2020 - 02:43 p.m.

    Because back then if you did something good you where president. Now it basically means your popular so everyone wants to see you and your always applauded for every thing you say.

  • EvanB-dur
    2/18/2020 - 02:48 p.m.

    I think it it longer because presidents have discovered how important that one or two year address is. It informs the whole country about all of the updates that have happened in that very year. In conclusion that is why presidents have been saying longer addresses in the past many years.

  • NathanS-dur
    2/18/2020 - 02:49 p.m.

    I think it is longer now because presidents have figured out how much they had to say now that there are a lot more laws and stuff.I also think they say more because it is more important to say a lot of detailed information because there is a lot of rules than back then.

  • KrishnaN-dur
    2/18/2020 - 02:52 p.m.

    I think it is so much longer because presidents these days can't say everything they want in around 1,000-2,000 words. They think that having a longer speech would make them a better president. And these people also clap after every sentence because they also think the same thing the president does: a longer speech is a better one.
    They don’t care about the words. And when both the president and the people believe the same thing, the president can do anything he wants with them. Like a puppet master controlling a puppet.

  • CaylieG-dur
    2/18/2020 - 02:53 p.m.

    I think it is longer beacause of different things that happen like the violence and global warming happening and that it is important for everyone in the world to know these things. Beacause back then people didn’t need know nor want to know

  • FionaH-dur
    2/18/2020 - 02:53 p.m.

    I think it is longer because there are more changes happening in the world. Also there are problems happening. And a lot more disagreeing with the president’s choices.

  • NinaZ-dur
    2/18/2020 - 02:59 p.m.

    I think the State of the Union is so much longer today than it was when George Washington gave his first address is because the State of the Union is more modern then addresses back then. The State of the Union made new inventions to introduce like mentions of honorable people, they definitely created more things to say over the years which is why the State of the Union is so much longer than George’s first address. In his first address, George Washington probably didn’t include mentions that were used in the State of the Union address, which means that the State of the Union address would be a bit longer than George Washington’s first address. A brief explanation on what I’m trying to say is that the State of the Union address is longer than George’s first address because the State of the Union probably included things that George Washington probably didn’t include because over the years they don’t just stay to the same sayings, which means that over the years addresses tend to grow and get longer. This is because they say new things that weren’t introduced back then. These are some reasons why I think the State of the Union address is longer than George Washington’s address. Thank you for reading!

    • EvanL-dur
      2/24/2020 - 02:48 p.m.

      That is a lot of writing.

    • SerenityS-dur
      2/24/2020 - 02:50 p.m.

      I’m really inspired Nina your comments are so long your very intelligent maybe one day you’ll be president.

  • ArwenC-dur
    2/18/2020 - 03:01 p.m.

    I think it’s longer now because over Time people have changed. There is more to say about the world because of what people have been doing to change it. Some of those changes are good but some are bad and people need to be aware of the bad. That is why I think The speeches are longer now than back then.

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