A Brief History of the State of the Union Address


The SOTU: Joe Biden’s favorite night of the year

The State of the Union Address has been an American institution since the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Article II, Section 3 Clause 1 states 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.” Originally known as the Annual Message, it began to be called the “state of the Union” towards the end of World War II and has officially been referred to as the State of the Union Address for over sixty years.

In the 1800’s, the President would give an update on the economy and outline budget requests. In the 1900’s, Congress passed the National Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 and the Employment Act of 1946, requiring the President to deliver a budget message and an economic report separate from what was then the Annual Message. The average length of the State of the Union was 10,000 words during these times, partly because most presidents did not deliver the speech in person.

While Presidents now give personal appearances before Congress to deliver their speeches, this was not always the case. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson presented his message to Congress in person, a novel occurrence at the time. As recent as 1981, however, it was not uncommon these addresses to be written. President Jimmy Carter wrote the longest State of the Union Address this year, with a length of 33,878 words, and luckily for Congress he didn’t stand in the House of Representatives reading it to them for hours.

The State of the Union Address officially serves to update the public about the economy and national security, but in recent years it has been used as a Presidential platform to roll out the agenda for the year. The speeches aren’t just a pulse check; they are rather used to determine what will be done about the problems discussed in the speech.

One thing I found interesting while looking up information about the State of the Union Address is the fact that President Clinton had to deliver his 1998 speech just days after news broke of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I anticipated he would use this speech as a national platform to attempt to clear is name to a wide audience, but instead he remained true to the intention of the speech, speaking for an hour and fifteen minutes about Social Security and the budget. I think this is a good example of how important this speech has become for our country and why we should value it as a society. Without the speech, we may not be on the same page regarding what is important and what will be in the political spotlight, and we can’t adjust our lobbying or voting patterns adequately without this information.



“Clinton Stays On His Message.” CNN Online 27 Jan. 1998. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

 History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “State of the Union Address,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/SOTU/State-of-the-Union/ (October 18, 2014)

Katie Koziara

During the school year, I can usually be found doing a few things: studying domestic health policy, working as a student coordinator for the Public Service Intern Program, exploring different restaurants around Ann Arbor, running my regular loop around the Big House, or catching up on one of my many, many favorite television shows.

One thought to “A Brief History of the State of the Union Address”

  1. Hi Katie,

    I really liked this post. First, because I actually though of doing an inaugural speech as my capstone project when I had initially entered the minor, so I’m really excited to see how your State of the Union comes out. Secondly, I think that this is some great research towards making progress on your project. While I don’t know much about what your capstone will be (aka are you a specific president, a specific time period, maybe even the 1st female president etc) I think that your last paragraph shows a lot about what you’ll be doing. Clinton definitely could’ve used the State of the Union to help his image, maybe not be necessarily addressing his dirty laundry, but maybe repairing his image and character. Instead as you mentioned he focused on the issues for the nation, not of his own and really asserted the role of the president and not just the person that he is.

    I’m very interested to see how your project comes out and not only to see the perspective of the president you write it form, but actually if it will include components outside of just the address. Will you have an opening for the audience about where we are in time and as a nation? Will you have any reflection in it as the writer (maybe in an after piece of it just telling us as the audience what it was like to write this and carefully avoid certain things or focus on one thing (like war) and not another (a PR scandal)? I’m excited to see it and think you’re on a great path!


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