Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s choice to skip this year’s State of the Union Address after President Obama rebuked a Supreme Court decision in his 2010 address might have made Thomas Jefferson grin and say: “I told you so.”
Today’s media-driven, theatrical State of the Union address is a far cry from its quaint origins when President George Washington rode in a carriage pulled by six horses to New York’s Federal Hall and delivered the first annual message to Congress in person on January 8, 1790. Though no cameras were around to flash, the event was still too theatrical for some, especially Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
Members of Congress responded to Washington’s formal speech by riding over the cobblestones and giving a courteous reply in person at the president’s Cherry Street residence in New York, then the nation’s capitol.
In one way this year’s GOP rebuttal by Rep. Paul Ryan is closer to Washington’s day simply because the response is coming from a congressman, not a governor as in recent years.
In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson put a kibosh on what he considered unnecessary pomp and circumstance. Though a gifted writer, Jefferson was a poor public speaker. He thought the tradition of the president speaking in person and congressmen responding was far too kingly for a new republic. Instead Jefferson wrote his annual message to Congress—now called the State of the Union Address—and sent copies to the Senate and House of Representatives.
For the next 112 years the president wrote but did not speak his annual message to Congress. Given Justice Alito’s choice to skip this year, some probably wouldn’t mind if Jefferson’s written tradition was revived, pummeling the political pep rally pomp.
So how did we arrive in today’s media-hyped, Internet downloadable, theatrical State of the Union address?
What You May Not Know about the State of the Union Address:
• President Woodrow Wilson controversially revived George Washington’s spoken precedent by delivering his annual message to Congress in person in 1913. He set today’s oral tradition.
• When Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 annual message to Congress was broadcast on radio, for the first time Americans could hear the speech instead of just reading about it in the newspapers. Silent Cal wasn’t so silent any more.
• Franklin Roosevelt began calling the annual message to Congress the “State of the Union” address in 1935. The phrase comes from Article II, Sec. 3 of the U.S. Constitution: “He (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.”
• Harry Truman’s State of the Union address in 1947 was the first to be televised. By 1960 most Americans owned a television, cementing today’s media tradition.
President Obama, Congress and Americans today can benefit from lessons of the past and present. Though it’s unnecessary to turn the State of the Union back into a written document, Jefferson was right to worry about theatrics damaging the tradition. As Alito’s choice to opt out points out, the State of the Union Address has too often pitted parties and branches of government against each other.
Obama went too far last year by criticizing the Supreme Court in a forum where they show their neutrality by not applauding with the Democrats or Republicans. The cost of such unnecessary criticism is the further unraveling of our union, the very thing the speech is supposed to promote.
George Washington’s first annual message focused on the state of the union, how well the separate states were coming together as one united nation. Washington outlined his ideas and policies without abusing his power.
“The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed,” Washington concluded.
“And I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing, though arduous task, of ensuring to our fellow-citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient and equal government.”
As we think about the state of our union today, Americans deserve a similar elevated tone.
Six-time author and former White House webmaster, Jane Hampton Cook is the author of a new book on presidents and technology called, "What Does the President Look Like?" and "Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War." For more information visit www.janecook.com.