Just the Facts

Five Facts on State of the Union Addresses

By Emma Petasis
January 24, 2019 | Blog

On Wednesday, President Trump declared that his annual State of the Union address was canceled, or at least postponed until after the shutdown. The announcement came after weeks of conflict between the president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi over whether or not it would be appropriate for the president to deliver his address amidst the shutdown. Trump is the first president in U.S. history to be disinvited from delivering the State of the Union address. However, his speech (or lack thereof) isn’t the first to make history. Here are five facts on memorable State of the Union addresses.

President George Washington delivered the first, and briefest, State of the Union.

While the Constitution does not technically call for an annual State of the Union speech, it does require the president to update Congress from “time to time.”   J. Milton Mackie, author and biographer on George Washington, writes that Washington was aware that as the first president, he defined and standardized the role of an elected leader. In the first State of the Union, Washington congratulated the addition of North Carolina into the Union, called for a standing army, argued for the protection of the U.S. in foreign affairs, and more. According to the Washington Library, Washington encouraged Congress to consider domestic topics such as immigration, establishing a currency, and education.

James K. Polk delivered an address that sparked the Gold Rush.

In 1848, President James K Polk shared his excitement with the nation over the supply of gold in the West, causing one of the largest migrations of people in U.S. history. Polk’s address came after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War and ceded the California and New Mexico territories to the United States. Polk excited the nation about the prospects of riches: “The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large, and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country.” By 1949, there were more than 50,000 miners in California— a huge leap from the 5,000 in the territory before Polk’s State of the Union.

President Lincoln addressed the nation during the Civil War.

Lincoln delivered a State of the Union speech just weeks after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring slaves in southern states free by January 1, 1863. He also used his address to reaffirm the oneness of the United States, amidst one of the most divided and bitter periods of the war. Lincoln addressed the hardships America faced, and reaffirmed his resolve and hope in keeping the nation together. His words are still remembered today: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union…In giving freedom to the slave, we ensure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.”

Woodrow Wilson ushered in the era of a delivered speech, rather than written.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson became the first president to personally deliver his State of the Union address to Congress. However, after Wilson, the precedent of personally delivering a speech did not resume amongst presidents until Franklin Roosevelt. Wilson’s address is not only remembered for its delivery, however. It is also known for its irony. Wilson addressed the nation predicting a period of peace and security: “The country, I am thankful to say, is at peace with all the world, and many happy manifestations multiply about us of a growing cordiality and sense of community of interest among the nations, foreshadowing an age of settled peace and good will.” Sadly, World War I broke out a year later.

Franklin Roosevelt outlined four essential human freedoms amidst the Second World War.

FDR had just secured victory for a third term when he delivered his 1941 address. Roosevelt warned the nation that “no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.” While he would wait another 11 months before involving the U.S. in the war, FDR advocated for continued aid to Great Britain and increased war industry production and told Congress and the world that the U.S. would defend four basic freedoms, which he defined as speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt’s four freedoms influenced the creation of the Atlantic Charter, the United Nations Declaration in 1942, and the eventual creation of the United Nations organization after his death.

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