Photograph by Universal History Archive, UIG/Getty
Read Caption

President Woodrow Wilson stands before Congress during his 1915 State of the Union address. Before Wilson, only George Washington and John Adams had presented their addresses in person—the rest were written annual reports.

Photograph by Universal History Archive, UIG/Getty

The State of the Union rules are less official than you think

The U.S. Constitution gives presidents a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the details of their annual address.

On January 8, 1790, in Federal Hall in New York City, President George Washington delivered his first annual address to Congress. His speech praised the union’s recent accomplishments: admitting North Carolina as a state and increased international visibility and respect for the young nation. Washington advocated for new legislation including the “proper establishment of troops,” a uniform system of weights and measures, defining the citizenship process, and the “advancement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures by all proper means.”

And Washington closed his speech with a message of cooperation: The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.

In slightly more than a thousand words (and record holder for the shortest annual address), Washington fulfilled the mandate of the U.S. Constitution that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (Article II, Section 3, Clause 1).

The U.S. president’s annual message has grown and changed to become the annual State of the Union Address, typically given by the sitting president before a joint session of Congress at the beginning of a new session. On Tuesday, February 4, President Donald Trump will deliver his third State of the Union address. But what are the obligations that he and other presidents must keep in mind while preparing their speeches? Other than directing the president to convey information to Congress, the Constitution is vague on a lot of the details.

There's no set date for the State of the Union

The Constitution doesn’t specify when or how often this address should be given. George Washington interpreted “from time to time” as “once a year.” Subsequent presidents followed his example.

In the 20th century, several presidents—most recently Barack Obama and Donald Trump—did not give official State of the Union addresses in the same year they began their terms in office. They often did give speeches to a joint session of Congress, but they were not official State of the Union addresses.

Presidents can deliver the address in any form, anywhere

How and where the “information” should be conveyed is also open-ended. The first two presidents, Washington and his successor John Adams, spoke in front of Congress, but in December 1801 Thomas Jefferson changed things up with just a written message instead (Some scholars say that Jefferson felt an oral address was too much like a British monarch, while others say that Jefferson was just a reluctant public speaker). Jefferson’s practice endured as following presidents delivered long written annual reports to Congress.

More than one hundred years later, President Woodrow Wilson broke with tradition when he delivered his annual address live before Congress on December 2, 1913. After Wilson’s address, more presidents delivered the State of the Union in person to Congress with a few exceptions: Wilson (1919, 1920), Calvin Coolidge (1924-1928), Herbert Hoover (1929-1932), Franklin Roosevelt (1944, 1945), Harry Truman (1946, 1953), Dwight Eisenhower (1956, 1961), Richard Nixon (1973), and Jimmy Carter (1981).

View Images

The first written annual address to Congress, penned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1801.

Where the President gives the address is also not specified in the Constitution. When presidents delivered a speech, they spoke before both houses of Congress, called together for a joint session. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives must pass a concurrent resolution before any joint session can occur. If either the Senate or the House do not pass it—as is the case in 2019—then the joint session will not happen.

Before 2019, the last time the State of the Union was delayed was in 1986. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, the same day President Ronald Reagan was to give the speech. Reagan delayed one week and instead broadcast a message from the Oval Office that evening addressing the national tragedy.

Presidents can convey any information they want

Before President Wilson, the annual messages were somewhat dry, lengthy reports containing administrative details, budgets, and reports. When the State of the Union returned to a live audience in 1913, the message became livelier. Presidents embraced it as a chance to rally support for their political agendas. After these addresses were broadcast across the country on radio, television, and the internet, they became an opportunity to speak not only to Congress, but also directly to the people.

Amy Briggs is the executive editor for National Geographic History magazine.
This story was originally published on January 25, 2019.