With the State of the Union in the news (it's tonight), I thought a post on its history would be useful. This is actually mandated by the Constitution:
Article II, Section 3 mandates 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."
This speech though has changed over the years:
A seemingly well-established misconception found even in some academic literature, is that the State of the Union is an orally delivered message presented to a joint session of Congress. With only a few exceptions, this has been true in the modern era (ca. 1933-present, see Neustadt or Greenstein), but beginning with Jefferson's 1st State of the Union (1801) and lasting until Taft's final message (1912), the State of the Union was a written (and often lengthy) report sent to Congress. Although Federalists Washington and Adams had personally addressed the Congress, Jefferson was concerned that the practice of appearing before the representatives of the people was too similar to the British monarch's ritual of addressing the opening of each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates, rather than "recommendations." This changed in 1913. Wilson believed the presidency was more than a impersonal institution; that instead the presidency is dynamic, alive, and personal (see Tulis). In articulating this philosophy, Wilson delivered an oral message to Congress. Heath reasons prevented Wilson from addressing Congress in 1919 and 1920, but Harding's two messages (1921 and 1922) and Coolidge's first (1923) were also oral messages. In the strict constructionist style of 19th Century presidents, Coolidge's remaining State of the Unions (1924-28) and all four of Hoover's (1929-32) were written. Franklin D. Roosevelt established the modern tradition of delivering an oral State of the Union beginning with his first in 1934. Exceptions include Truman's 1st (1946) and last (1953), Eisenhower's last (1961), Carter's last (1981), and Nixon's 4th (1973). In addition, Roosevelt's last (1945) and Eisenhower's 4th (1956) were technically written messages although they addressed the American people via radio summarizing their reports. Any research design should recognize these facts.
Also, the five most recent presidents (Reagan, Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama) addressed a joint session of Congress shortly after their inaugurations but these messages are actually not considered to be "State of the Union" addresses. Reagan's 1981 address is called, "Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery." Bush's 1989 and Clinton's 1993 messages are called "Administration Goals" speeches. G.W. Bush's 2001 speech is actually his "Budget Message," and President Obama delivered a similar non-State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009. For research purposes, it is probably harmless to categorize these as State of the Union messages since the impact of such a speech on public, media, and congressional perceptions of presidential leadership and power should be the same as if the address was an official State of the Union. These speeches are included in the table below with an asterisk.
An additional fact is that the State of the Union is delivered near the beginning of each session of Congress. Before 1934 this meant the State of the Union was delivered usually in December, near the end of the 1-4 years following the president's inauguration. Since 1934, the State of the Union is delivered near the beginning each year, with some presidents delivering a final message at the end of their last term (Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter). The table below reflects each message's placement in this form of "political time."
Finally, President George W. Bush delivered his last State of the Union Address on January 28, 2008. Bush had the right to deliver either a written or oral State of the Union in the days immediately before leaving office in 2009, but like Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton, he chose not to. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter chose to do so.
For more information, check out this CRS report.
And to end with a fun fact:
Richard Nixon understood how boring a State of the Union could be. "Why do we have to have all that dull stuff about agriculture and cesspools?' he asked his staff preparing for the 1970 State of the Union. Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, powered by "greenies" (amphetamines) from the White House doctor, pulled two consecutive all-nighters before suffering "complete spatial disorientation" on the third day. He saw his desk in front of him and also against a far wall. For days he would see right angles in corridors where there were none. A young aide named Richard Blumenthal, now running for senator from Connecticut, helped him home for some much-needed sleep.