The Founding Fathers believed a State of the Union address to be so essential to democracy that they enshrined it in the Constitution: The president "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the state of the union," Article II, Section 3 mandates. Although the terms are vague, a State of the Union address has been held almost every year since George Washington himself kicked off the tradition in brief remarks in 1790.
Today, the State of the Union draws a broadcast audience of millions. But before the advent of television, it was not always delivered orally. President Thomas Jefferson, fearing he sounded too much like a monarch, sparked a long series of State of the Union addresses delivered in writing, a decision that was ultimately reversed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913.
Yet spoken or not, State of the Union addresses have both chronicled and shaped the course of American history. Here are some of the most memorable moments in the history of the State of the Union address.
President George Washington gives a speech in New York's Federal Hall in 1789. | (Public domain/PD-US)
President George Washington, 1790. | "Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness." | While the Constitution does not technically call for an annual State of the Union, suggesting instead that the president address a joint session of Congress "from time to time," Washington "was acutely aware that as the nation's first president, he was setting precedents by defining the role of an elected national leader for citizens and legislators who were wary of executive power," MountVernon.org writes. Washington made his speech in New York City, emphasizing the importance of a standing army — then a divisive request — and education, telling Congress that "there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature." His speech was brief by modern standards; in fact, it was the briefest State of the Union ever, at just 1,089 words. The average these days lasts about an hour.
President James Monroe. | (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
President James Monroe, 1823. | "Separated as we are from Europe by the great Atlantic Ocean, we can have no concern in the wars of the European governments nor in the causes which produce them … But in regard to our neighbors our situation is different. It is impossible for the European governments to interfere in their concerns, especially in those alluded to, which are vital, without affecting us; indeed, the motive which might induce such interference in the present state of the war between the parties, if a war it may be called, would appear to be equally applicable to us." | Monroe's 1823 State of the Union defined the next 150 years of American foreign policy. The so-called Monroe Doctrine that was born out of this speech divided the world into hemispheres of influence, with Monroe stating in no uncertain terms that European meddling in the West would be considered "the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States." Many presidents after Monroe would cite or build upon his doctrine, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the phrase "speak softly and carry a big stick," a warning that a soft-spoken America wasn't afraid to flex its military might in Latin America if push came to shove.
President James Polk. | (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
James Polk, 1848. | "It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation." | Not every State of the Union sparks a gold rush, but Polk's excitement over the "very large" supply of gold in California confirmed for many would-be 49ers that the rumors were not a hoax. Polk subsequently sparked one of the largest migrations of people in United States history. The power of Polk's State of the Union can be seen in the radical demographic change in California over the course of just a year: In 1948, there were just 5,000 miners in the territory, and by the end of 1849, there were more than 50,000.
President Abraham Lincoln at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. | (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
President Abraham Lincoln, 1862. | "In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of Earth." | Lincoln had a difficult job in December 1862, when he submitted his State of the Union address to Congress. Ten weeks earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was only just becoming clear, as 23,000 perished or were wounded in September's Battle of Antietam, what horrors the Civil War would yet bring. Echoing Thomas Jefferson's inaugural speech, in which he called America "the world's best hope," Lincoln "was speaking of emancipation, but also of a larger topic, the ultimate survival of democracy," when he famously said that "we shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of Earth," The New York Times writes. Lincoln's speech didn't exactly go without a hitch: In those days, the document was written, not read orally by the president, and scandal erupted when the New York Herald published several excerpts early.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 1941. | (AP Photo)
President Franklin Roosevelt, 1941. | "In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms." | Americans were watching nervously as war erupted across Europe. While it would still be 11 more months before the U.S. would join the fight, Roosevelt told Congress that "we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms." He went on to define those freedoms as "speech and expression," "freedom of every person to worship God in his own way," "freedom from want," and "freedom from fear." With startling optimism, Roosevelt added: "That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation." While his vision might still be a long ways from being realized, the Four Freedoms speech was so inspiring that it has since given its name to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, the Four Freedoms Award, as well as a monument and a plethora of murals.
President Lyndon B. Johnson delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964. | (AP Photo)
President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964. | "Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States." | Johnson's first State of the Union speech came just weeks after being sworn into office, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His State of the Union, though, is one of only a handful in U.S. history to be better known by its unofficial name; in this case, the "War on Poverty" speech. At the time, the poverty rate in the country was almost 25 percent, The Washington Post reports. "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope," Johnson said in his address. "Some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both." He urged lawmakers to find a solution: "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it," he said, adding: "No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice." The bills that would follow helped created programs that are still used today, including food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and Title I.
President Richard Nixon delivers his State of the Union address in 1974. | (AP Photo)
President Richard Nixon, 1974. | "One year of Watergate is enough." | Nixon's 1974 speech came at a time of great uncertainty, as the Watergate scandal had progressed to a point where just two weeks later, the House would overwhelmingly give the Judiciary Committee the power to investigate impeachment charges. In an awkward slip of the tongue, Nixon told Congress that "we must replace the discredited president," instead of, "we must replace the discredited welfare system." Still, his message was one of optimism as he noted that for the first time in 12 years, America was no longer at war anywhere in the world and the draft had been abolished. It was also, perhaps, optimism that drove him to add at the end: "I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States." He would resign eight months later.
President Gerald Ford delivers his first State of the Union address in 1975. | (Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)
President Gerald Ford, 1975. | "The state of the union is not good." | Ford's first State of the Union address followed the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the new president didn't hold anything back from the American public when he said bluntly: "The state of the union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow." Ford proposed "dramatically moving from a strict, fiscal conservative program … to a stimulatory tax cut," Andrew D. Moran writes for Presidential Studies Quarterly, although a year later Ford would report back with the same blunt honesty that "that the state of our union is better — in many ways a lot better — but still not good enough."
President Ronald Reagan's 1986 State of the Union speech. | (Mark Reinstein / Alamy Stock Photo)
President Ronald Reagan, 1986. | "Thank you for allowing me to delay my address until this evening. We paused together to mourn and honor the valor of our seven Challenger heroes. And I hope that we are now ready to do what they would want us to do: Go forward, America, and reach for the stars. We will never forget those brave seven, but we shall go forward." | Reagan was supposed to give his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 1986, but he pushed the speech back by a week after the Challenger space shuttle tragically broke apart that same day, killing all seven on board. His staff would later recall informing the president of the explosion while he was working in the Oval Office. "It just was — I say — a very traumatic experience," Reagan said. He had promoted sending a school teacher into space during his 1984 campaign, The New York Times reports, and that had led to Christa McAuliffe's inclusion on the shuttle. Reagan would later powerfully open his delayed State of the Union by honoring the Challenger heroes. He concluded that speech with upward-looking optimism: "In this land of dreams fulfilled, where greater dreams may be imagined, nothing is impossible, no victory is beyond our reach, no glory will ever be too great."
President Bill Clinton's 1996 State of the Union. | (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President Bill Clinton, 1996. | "The era of big government is over." | Presidential historian Michael Beschloss described Clinton's State of the Union address to The Washington Post as "almost a counterweight to President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 State of the Union," the famous War on Poverty speech. Indeed, Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over" was shocking coming from a Democrat, and followed the Republican Party seizing control of Congress for the first time in 40 years during the 1994 midterms. But with a difficult re-election looming, Clinton's declaration paid off: He got a six-point approval-rating boost after the speech, an unusual payoff, as Gallup notes. Clinton additionally used his speech to blast Republicans over a 21-day government shutdown, demanding Congress "never, ever, shut the federal government down again." It went over well: Clinton was interrupted 79 times by applause.
President George W. Bush gives his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002. | (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)
President George W. Bush, 2002. | "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic." | Bush's first State of the Union was also one of the most serious, coming just months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Using what The New York Times called "unusually strong language," Bush coined the term "axis of evil" to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, and warned that tens of thousands of would-be al Qaeda terrorists have "spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs." While the phrase chilled some, it elicited laughter from others, famously being parodied on Saturday Night Live by Will Ferrell. "I remember scornful email chains that started labeling various countries as the 'axis of naughty,' the 'axis of countries that end with -stan,' and the 'axis of places that aren't so bad but also won't host the Olympics any time soon,'" recalled former Marine Corp infantry rifleman Morgan Deane.
President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union speech on Jan. 27, 2010. | (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama, 2010. | "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong." | Obama's public shaming of the Supreme Court for its 5-4 ruling on Citizens United was surprising enough during his 2010 State of the Union, but it was the reaction of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. that stole the show. The conservative judge appeared to mouth "not true, not true," shaking his head as Obama blasted the court. While the Democrats and Cabinet members around the judges stood up and applauded, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) afterward slammed Obama as "rude." Alito's head-shaking was not the first time Obama was rebuked mid-speech — four months earlier, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) had shouted "you lie!" at Obama during a presidential address to a joint session of Congress.
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