State of the Union | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives


Woodrow Wilson Addresses Congress/tiles/non-collection/w/wilson_addressing_congress_lc_web.xml
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
On December 13, 1913, Woodrow Wilson gave the first in-person Annual Message since the 18th century.

Including President Donald J. Trump’s 2020 address, there have been a total of 97 in-person Annual Messages/State of the Union Addresses. Since President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 address, there have been a total of 85 in-person addresses.

In 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt’s address was read to a Joint Session of the House and Senate. Since the President did not deliver the address, it does not count as an in-person address.

Origins and Authorization

The formal basis for the State of the Union Address is from the U.S. Constitution:

  • The President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he
    shall judge necessary and expedient.” Article II, Section 3, Clause 1.

The constitutionally mandated presidential message has gone through a few name changes:

  • It was formally known as the Annual Message from 1790 to 1946.
  • It began to be informally called the “state of the Union” message/address from 1942 to 1946.
  • Since 1947 it has officially been known as the State of the Union Address.

Earlier Annual Messages of the President included agency budget requests and general
reports on the health of the economy. During the 20th century, Congress required
more-specialized reports on these two aspects, separate from the Annual Message.

  • Budget Message, required by the National Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 (42 Stat.
    20) to be delivered to Congress no more than two weeks after Congress convenes in
    January.
  • Economic Report, required by the Employment Act of 1946 (60 Stat. 23), with a flexible
    delivery date.

Over time, as the message content changed, the focus of the State of the Union also
changed:

  • In the 19th century, the annual message was both a lengthy administrative report
    on the various departments of the executive branch and a budget and economic message.
  • After 1913, when Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of presenting the message to
    Congress in person, it became a platform for the President to rally support for
    his agenda.
  • Technological changes—radio, television, and the Internet—further developed
    the State of the Union into a forum for the President to speak directly to the American
    people.

Technological Change

Record Holders

  • The longest: President James Earl (Jimmy) Carter 33,667 words in 1981 (written). President William J. (Bill) Clinton 9,190 words in 1995 (spoken).1
  • The shortest: President George Washington, 1790, 1,089 words.2
  • Average length: 19th century was about 10,000 words; late 20th century, about 5,000
    words.
  • Most Messages/Addresses given: President Franklin Roosevelt, 12 (10 were personal
    appearances before Congress).
  • Fewest Messages/Addresses given: President Zachary Taylor, 1; President William Henry Harrison, 0; President James A. Garfield, 0.

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