A Brief History of the State of the Union Address

An image of the State of the Union address in 2016
An image of the State of the Union address in 2016
Alex Wong, Getty Images

The 2019 State of the Union address will officially take place February 5. Here are the answers to a few questions—from when the first address occurred to the story behind the opposition's response—that might come up while you're watching.

Why does the president give a State of the Union address to Congress every year?

The State of the Union address can trace its roots back to the Constitution. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution says 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."

When was the first State of the Union address?

"From time to time" leaves the question of frequency open to interpretation, but George Washington helped cement the State of the Union as an annual event after he gave the first State of the Union address at Federal Hall in New York City in January 1790.

Since there wasn't much of a blueprint for Washington, he praised the 1st Congress's work and outlined a brief legislative plan for the upcoming year: He wanted to work on the army, build post roads, and develop uniform systems of currency, weights, and measures. In December 1790, Washington gave his second State of the Union address and firmly established it as an annual event—and the tradition that it take place near the end of the year. Until 1934, the State of the Union was usually in December or November. This would change to the beginning of the year after the 20th amendment moved the start of Congress up to January.

Has every president given an annual State of the Union address?

No. You'll notice that the order from Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution doesn't say anything about a speech; the president just has to keep Congress informed of what's going on in the country. When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he decided that the idea of showing up before Congress to deliver a grand address sounded like something a monarch would do, so he decided to bag the speech. Instead, he wrote down an annual message and sent it to Congress, where a clerk read it aloud to the legislators.

Apparently presidents don't love giving long speeches any more than the rest of us do, because Jefferson's successors jumped on this new system. For over a century, every president opted to keep Congress informed through a written message rather than a spoken one; these messages were generally full of long, exhaustive administrative and budget reports rather than rousing political rhetoric. Two presidents—William Henry Harrison and James Garfield—didn’t give a State of the Union in any form due to dying early in their presidencies.

Which president brought the State of the Union address back?

Woodrow Wilson finally revived the old practice of delivering a speech in 1913. Even then, presidents haven't always appeared to give a speech. Since the 1913 revival of the practice, 19 State of the Union reports have come in written form, most recently Carter's 1981 report.

Who are all of the people crammed into the front of the House Chamber during the State of the Union address?

It's a big crowd for the State of the Union. In addition to the members of Congress, the president usually has the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and most of his cabinet seated at the front of the audience.

Who won't be at the State of the Union address?

At least one member of the president's cabinet. Since the Cold War, one member of the cabinet has holed up in an undisclosed secure location during big government gatherings like the State of the Union address and presidential inaugurations. This absent member is dubbed the "designated survivor." In the unlikely event that an attack or a disaster leads to the deaths of all of the assembled leaders, having a designated survivor hiding out somewhere safe maintains the line of presidential succession.

Since 2005 a few members of Congress have also stayed away from big events so there would be at least a tiny legislature remaining in the event of a disaster.

When was the first televised State of the Union address?

President Truman gave the first televised State of the Union in 1947, but it didn't become a primetime spectacle until 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson decided to give his address in the evening that year, while previous addresses had generally taken place during the day. At the time, LBJ was trying to sell Americans on his civil rights reforms and Great Society plans, so he decided to give the address at night in order to reach the widest possible audience. The trick worked, and it was the first State of the Union address to be televised during the evening.

Can a president opt out of giving a State of the Union address?

Sort of. It doesn't really make a lot of sense for a newly inaugurated president to deliver a State of the Union address after only having been in office for a few days. Since Ronald Reagan's first term started in 1981, new presidents have opted to give a somewhat more specialized address—generally about the economy—to a joint session of Congress. Although these speeches are accompanied by the familiar pomp and circumstance, they're not technically State of the Union addresses.

Which president started the parade of honored guests at the State of the Union?

Could such a Hollywood flourish have come from anyone other than Ronald Reagan? His 1982 address was the first to feature personal guests that the president publicly recognized over the course of his speech. Openly gay NBA veteran Jason Collins and two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing were among 2014's guests. In 2015, former Cuba prisoner Alan Gross and astronaut Scott Kelly attended.

Notable guests from past events include 12-year-old music prodigy Tyrone Ford (1986), baseball sluggers Sammy Sosa (1999) and Hank Aaron (2000), Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark (2007), and NBA star Dikembe Mutombo (2007).

Why does the opposition party give a response right after the State of the Union address?

In 1966, television networks gave the Republican Party a half-hour slot for a rebuttal of LBJ's address. Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford made counterarguments to Johnson's comments—five days later and very late at night. After the State of the Union moved into the evening in 1965, the audience skyrocketed and it became a much more hyped event; Republicans realized they needed their own soapbox. Since 1976, the opposition's response has been slotted in directly behind the State of the Union.

Which president gave the longest State of the Union address in history?

According to the House of Representatives, Bill Clinton takes that prize with a 1995 speech—over 9000 words (the average modern address is in the neighborhood of 5000 words). And according to UCSB’s American Presidency Project, the longest time since 1966 was Clinton’s 2000 speech at nearly an hour and a half. Jimmy Carter takes the prize for longest written address at over 33,000 words.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2010 and 2015.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

15 Intriguing Facts About Walt Disney

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Artist, producer, entrepreneur, and all-around game-changer Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901. More than a century later, it’s easy to forget that Disney was a real person, not just a caricature or company figurehead. In honor of the man, not the corporation, here are 15 facts about his life.

1. Walt Disney played Peter Pan in a school play.

The story Peter Pan surely held a special place in Walt Disney’s heart: not only was it a hit movie for him in 1953, it also took him back to his childhood. After seeing Peter Pan on stage, young Walt was given the opportunity to play the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in a school performance. Walt later recalled that his brother Roy was in charge of the rope used to hoist him over the stage to simulate flying; it was just one of their many creative collaborations.

2. Walt Disney was a high school dropout.


Getty Images

Walt was just 16 when he left school to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, wanting to do his part in World War I. But because he was just shy of the minimum age requirement of 17, he forged a different date on his birth certificate. Disney didn’t see much action, however. He was sent to France in late 1918, not long after the armistice was signed that ended the fighting. He still helped where he could, driving Red Cross officials and performing other tasks, before he was discharged in 1919.

3. Walt Disney almost sold vacuum cleaners for a living.

In 1923, Walt joined his older brother Roy in L.A. to pursue a career in animation. Roy had been selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door to make ends meet and encouraged Walt do the same. Walt considered it, but before he could get sucked in by a Kirbyesque scheme, he got a call from a company in New York that wanted him to make shorts for them.

4. Mickey Mouse wasn’t Walt Disney's first big creation.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1927, Universal asked Walt and his chief animator Ub Iwerks to create a cartoon character for them; the result was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was a huge hit, complete with robust merchandising. With this success under his belt, in 1928, Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract with producer Charles Mintz. Mintz, however, countered with a different deal: He wanted to cut the budget. And to add salt to the wound, Mintz had been working backdoor deals to hire Disney’s animators out from under him. In the end, Universal ended up with the rights to Oswald, and Disney left New York feeling as if he had lost almost everything. But it all worked out in the end—on the train ride back to California, Disney sketched a character that would eclipse Oswald in popularity: Mickey Mouse.

The company regained control of the obscure character in 2006, almost eight decades after losing him. The rights were part of a trade between Disney and NBC/Universal: They agreed to let Disney have Oswald back, and Disney, the owner of ABC and ESPN, agreed to let NBC use sportscaster Al Michaels for Sunday Night Football.

5. Walt Disney didn’t draw Mickey Mouse.

He did at first, but it didn't last long—after 1928, Walt was no longer animating, focusing instead on story development and direction. He relied on Iwerks and other superior artists to do the drawing dirty work. He never drew Mickey in any of his theatrical releases, and in fact, probably only really drew Mickey when autograph seekers requested it.

6. But Walt Disney did voice Mickey Mouse.

From 1928 to 1947, Walt was the man behind the mouse—literally. Even after the voice work was officially turned over to Jimmy MacDonald in 1947, Walt continued to do Mickey’s voice for shorts on The Mickey Mouse Club.

7. Walt Disney drove his daughters to school every day.

Despite the fact that he had drivers, a live-in housekeeper, and a number of other staff members at his disposal, Disney took great pleasure in driving his two daughters to school every day. He also spoiled them unabashedly, which historian Steve Watts believed was a reaction to Walt’s own stern upbringing.

8. Walt Disney had a secret apartment at Disneyland.

It’s still there, in fact, above the fire station. Walt’s private apartment isn’t typically open to the public, but VIPs are occasionally offered tours. The furnishings remain virtually unchanged from when Walt used to spend time there, including a lamp in the window visible from outside. It’s always kept on to signify that Walt is always in the park.

9. Walt Disney's favorite song was “Feed the Birds.”

There have been a lot of toe-tapping hits in Disney movies over the years, but Walt’s personal favorite was a ballad: “Feed the Birds,” the song about the pigeon lady in Mary Poppins. According to songwriter Richard Sherman, Walt often stopped by the Sherman brothers’ office at Disney on Friday afternoons and requested a personal performance of “Feed the Birds.” "He loved that song, and knew it was the heartbeat of the whole movie,” Sherman said.

10. Walt Disney found golf anything but relaxing.

Though many people play golf to relax, Disney couldn't deal with it. After giving up polo at his doctor's behest, Walt took up golf, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in nine holes before work. He found the game so frustrating that he quit and took up a more chill sport—lawn bowling.

11. Walt Disney felt responsible for his mother’s death.

Cartoonist and film producer Walt Disney (1901 - 1966) arriving in the foyer of a London hotel
Harry Shepherd, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Once he became successful, Walt bought his parents a rather extravagant present: a new house. And when his parents needed something fixed, tweaked, or repaired, he sent his own repairmen from the studio over to take care of it. Such was the case when they discovered a problem with their furnace in 1938. Tragically, his team didn’t take care of the issue properly, and Flora Call Disney died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 70. His father, Elias, also fell very ill from the gas leak, but survived. Walt’s daughter, Sharon, said that even years later, Walt found the subject nearly impossible to talk about.

12. Walt Disney's housekeeper was a very wealthy woman.

Thelma Howard was the Disney family’s live-in housekeeper and cook for three decades. She was hired in 1951 and quickly became part of the family, even making sure the fridge was well-stocked with hot dogs—Walt liked to eat them cold as a snack when he got home from work. As part of her annual Christmas gift, the Disneys gave her stock in the company. She never did anything with her shares, and by the time she died in 1994, the woman was a multimillionaire because of them. She left nearly $4.5 million to poor and disabled children, and roughly the same amount to her disabled son.

13. Walt Disney was obsessed with trains.

Walt always had an interest in trains, even building an elaborate model in his office, which he enjoyed running for his guests. In 1948, his hobby grew to new heights when he constructed a 1/8 scale model in his backyard, with track spanning half a mile. He deemed it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad.

14. One of Walt Disney's last written communications was rather mysterious—and involved Kurt Russell.

22nd November 1946: American animator and producer Walt (Walter Elias) Disney (1901 - 1966) walking through St Stephens Green, Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland.
Keystone/Getty Images

Shortly before his death, Disney wrote “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper. It was later found on his desk, and, according to Disney historian Dave Smith, the notes were among Disney's last few written words. At the time of Disney’s death, Russell was a largely unknown child actor working for the studio. No one has any idea what Disney was referring to with his note—not even Kurt Russell.

15. Walt Disney is not cryogenically frozen.

Bob Nelson, the former president of the Cryonics Society of California, makes a good point: if Disney was the first cryogenically frozen man, it would have been a pretty big deal for cryonics, and they would have publicized the heck out of the Mickey Mouse-cicle. No, Walt was cremated and buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. His gravesite is in a public area for people who want to see it for themselves.

The chilly rumor may have been started by Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men” animators, who had a wicked sense of humor.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER