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The First State of the Union Address: Way Shorter, Way Less Clapping

In his First Annual Message to Congress, George Washington outlined the country’s most pressing issues and kicked off a flexible annual tradition

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale (Corbis)
smithsonian.com

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.

Tonight, Barack Obama, whose past addresses clock at an average of about one hour, will give the 93rd spoken State of the Union Address in American history. Expect clapping—since 1991, New York noted a couple years ago, "there's been an average of around 80 applause lines" in SOTU speeches. President Clinton held the record of 128 applause interruptions in just one speech; President Obama averaged about 90. 

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