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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

State of the Union: Historical Perspective

Tonight, the president delivers the annual State of the Union address. At The American Presidency Project Gerhard Peters writes:
A seemingly well-established misconception found even in some academic literature, is that the State of the Union is an orally delivered message presented to a joint session of Congress. With only a few exceptions, this has been true in the modern era (ca. 1933-present, see Neustadt or Greenstein), but beginning with Jefferson's 1st State of the Union (1801) and lasting until Taft's final message (1912), the State of the Union was a written (and often lengthy) report sent to Congress. Although Federalists Washington and Adams had personally addressed the Congress, Jefferson was concerned that the practice of appearing before the representatives of the people was too similar to the British monarch's ritual of addressing the opening of each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates, rather than "recommendations." This changed in 1913. Wilson believed the presidency was more than a impersonal institution; that instead the presidency is dynamic, alive, and personal (see Tulis). In articulating this philosophy, Wilson delivered an oral message to Congress. Health reasons prevented Wilson from addressing Congress in 1919 and 1920, but Harding's two messages (1921 and 1922) and Coolidge's first (1923) were also oral messages. In the strict constructionist style of 19th Century presidents, Coolidge's remaining State of the Unions (1924-28) and all four of Hoover's (1929-32) were written. Franklin D. Roosevelt established the modern tradition of delivering an oral State of the Union beginning with his first in 1934. Exceptions include Truman's 1st (1946) and last (1953), Eisenhower's last (1961), Carter's last (1981), and Nixon's 4th (1973). In addition, Roosevelt's last (1945) and Eisenhower's 4th (1956) were technically written messages although they addressed the American people via radio summarizing their reports. Any research design should recognize these facts.
PBS compares the state of the union in 1913 -- the year in which Wilson revived the oral version -- and 2013: