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What is a State of the Union address?

Last Updated Jan 30, 2018 1:28 PM EST

When President Trump delivers his first State of the Union address, he'll be participating in a tradition dating back to George Washington that has its origins in the Constitution. Article II, Section 3 dictates that 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."

It was George Washington who set the precedent for what "from time to time" means. The American Presidency Project notes that since 1790, with a couple of exceptions, the State of the Union has been given annually. Washington addressed Congress in person, traveling to New York to make the speech.

Thomas Jefferson changed the tradition, though. In 1801, he opted instead to send a written report to Congress at the beginning of its session. Jefferson thought that the in-person address had the whiff of monarchy -- too much like the king's list of orders to Parliament. Presidents hewed to Jefferson's model for over a century, and sometimes combined practices, with a written message one year and an oral address other years. Sometimes, they did both.

The message hasn't always gone by the name "State of the Union," the House of Representatives notes. From 1790 to 1946 it was called the "Annual Message," and then from 1942 to 1946 it became known informally called the "state of the Union." And since 1947, it's been officially known as the State of the Union Address.

The president's first address is not a State of the Union address -- it's simply an address before a joint session of Congress. In that first speech, presidents lay out the goals for their administrations.

Some data points

The House of Representatives also has some interesting notes on the State of the Union -- here are some of them:

Broadcast facts

  • 1923: Calvin Coolidge becomes the first president whose State of the Union address was broadcast over the radio;
  • 1947: Harry Truman delivers the first televised State of the Union speech
  • 1965: Lyndon Johnson is the first president to make the televised address in the evening
  • 2002: The State of the Union comes into the 21st century with the first live webcast, by George W. Bush
  • 2004: George W. Bush is also the first president to deliver a high-definition television broadcast State of the Union address

Other State of the Union facts:

  • Bill Clinton delivered the longest address in 1995 -- it was 9,190 words and, according to the New York Times, it ran 81 minutes
  • George Washington's 1790 address was not only the first, it was also the shortest, at 1,089 words.
  • Franklin Roosevelt delivered the most in-person addresses -- 10.