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: 980L

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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. 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.

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. There were no 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. It clocked 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. He outlined 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 he spoke of 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, 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 by giving Congress the required "time to time" update at the beginning of the year. Thus 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." That's what it was called until 1946.

Starting with Thomas Jefferson in 1801, 19th century presidents skipped the speech altogether. 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. That's 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. 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?
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