President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress in December 1915 during the State of the Union address.. Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
On Jan. 8, 1790, George Washington stood before a joint session of Congress to deliver the nation’s first State of the Union address. In his speech, Washington reflected on the first year of his presidency and laid out his policies for the still-new United States. In so doing, he set the tone for all future presidents to discuss pressing domestic and foreign issues of the day and promote policy ideas to combat those problems.
At the heels of President Obama’s final State of the Union address, here’s a look at the history of the speech along with its various traditions and rituals.
Washington delivered his first annual address to Congress on Jan. 8, 1790 at Federal Hall in New York City. At the time, it was not yet referred to as the State of the Union.
President Washington began each address by saying, “Fellow-citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives…” In comparison, during last year’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama started his speech with, “Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans…”
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President Lyndon Johnson was the first president to use the phrase, “My Fellow Americans” in his State of the Union introduction.
The annual address was not officially called the “State of the Union” until 1947. It was in 1942 that people began informally using that name. Before that, it was simply known as the “Annual Message,” or “Annual Address.”
The first State of the Union set in Washington, D.C. was delivered by President John Adams in his final annual address in 1800.
Only two presidents failed to deliver a single State of the Union address, but they both had a good excuse. William Henry Harrison was in office exactly one month when he died of pneumonia, and James Garfield was assassinated six months into his presidency.
From Thomas Jefferson’s presidency through William Howard Taft’s — that’s 1801-1913 — the State of the Union was delivered in written form. Woodrow Wilson brought back the tradition of delivering a speech in his first term. The State of the Union has been delivered in written form 130 times and as a speech 93 times.
The last president to only submit a written State of the Union was Jimmy Carter in 1981, four days before Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.
The shortest State of the Union was delivered by Washington, with only 1,089 words total. The longest written State of the Union had 33,667 words — that was Jimmy Carter in 1981. The longest speech was 9,190 words, delivered by Bill Clinton in 1995.
The first opposition response to the president’s address was given by Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford in 1966. Ford, George H. W. Bush and Clinton all gave opposition responses before becoming president.
The modern day State of the Union is traditionally scheduled for January, but that trend did not start until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Before FDR, most presidents delivered their annual address in December; a handful opted for November or October.
The first radio broadcast of the address aired in 1923 by Calvin Coolidge. The first television broadcast was of Harry Truman’s speech in 1947. And the first live webcast of the speech was in 2002 by George W. Bush.
Since the ‘80s, a designated survivor has been selected for the State of the Union. This is a member of the president’s cabinet who does not attend the event, in case a disaster or attack kills the president and everyone in the line of succession. The first designated survivor was Reagan’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Samuel Pierce. The two cabinet positions most often selected to serve as designated survivor are the secretary of the Agriculture Department and the secretary of the Interior Department; both positions have been selected six times each. The only person to serve in the role more than once was George W. Bush’s Commerce secretary, Donald Evans.
President Bill Clinton during his last State of the Union Address before Congress. Photo by Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
In the 2011 speech, members of Congress broke with tradition and sat with lawmakers of the opposite party after Senator Mark Udall of Colorado called for a show of unity in response to the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and others in Arizona.
Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and President Obama all delivered non-State of the Union addresses to Congress in February of their first year as president. Tomorrow’s speech will be Obama’s seventh and final State of the Union address.
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photo by Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly implied that John F. Kennedy was the first president to use the term, “My Fellow Americans.”