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This Day in History: George Washington’s State of the Union

On this day in 1790, George Washington delivers the very first State of the Union address.

Did you know that Presidents are constitutionally required to give State of the Union addresses? Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution provides 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 . . . .”

The Constitution does not define “from time to time,” but Americans have developed the tradition of an annual address. Another little-known fact: The Constitution also does not require that the address be spoken — some of our Presidents have delivered written addresses as well.

George Washington waited less than a year to deliver his first State of the Union address. He was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, and he gave his first address just over 8 months later, on January 8, 1790. Of course, he didn’t call it the “State of the Union.” His diary refers to it as, simply, “my Speech.”

At just over 1,000 words, it was the shortest State of the Union speech in our nation’s history. (Washington also gave the shortest inaugural speech ever! His second inaugural was only 135 words.)

Washington’s speech was delivered in the Senate chamber, with Senators seated on his right and Representatives seated on his left. “This annual message had been expected to be an important presentation of policy,” historian Douglas Southall Freeman notes, “but Washington’s continuing caution deterred him from vigorous advocacy which, indeed, was contrary to his nature.”

Washington quickly turned to the question of “the common defense.” Perhaps the former General couldn’t help himself?

“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace,” he observed. “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined,” he added.

Washington briefly discussed a few other matters before ending with an extended note about the importance of knowledge and education.

“Knowledge is in every country,” he concluded, “the surest basis of public happiness. . . . To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways . . . by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness—cherishing the first, avoiding the last—and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.”

Once Washington finished his speech, he “retired, bowing on each side to the Assembly (who stood) as I passed . . . .”

“The business was soon over,” Senator William Maclay later reported, “and the Senate were left alone.”

Seems relatively simple compared to what we do today, doesn’t it?

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