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State of the Union Addresses and Messages: research notes by Gerhard Peters

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Length of State of the Union Messages and Addresses in Words
Length of State of the Union Addresses in Minutes (from 1966)
List of Acknowledged Guests Sitting in House Gallery
List of Opposition Responses
Cabinet Members Not in Attendance
(from 1984)
 

Gerhard PetersState of the Union Messages to the Congress are mandated by Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution: "He 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;" 

George Washington established the precedent that clarifies the phrase "from time to time." Since 1790, with occasional exceptions, State of the Union messages have been delivered once annually.

A 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 a few exceptions, this has been true in the modern era (ca. 1933-present, see Neustadt or Greenstein). However, 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 to coincide with a new Session of Congress..  

Federalists Washington and Adams had personally addressed the Congress, but Jefferson was concerned that the practice of appearing before the representatives of the people was too similar to the British monarch's practice of addressing each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates, rather than "recommendations."  

Jefferson's practice changed in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson believed the presidency was more than an impersonal institution and active and visible presidential leadership was needed by both the people and the Congress. As an expression of this philosophy, Wilson delivered oral messages to Congress, citing the authority of the Constitution.  

For health reasons, Wilson did not address Congress in 1919 and 1920. Warren Harding's two messages (1921 and 1922) and Calvin Coolidge's first (1923) were also oral messages.  Subsequently, Coolidge's remaining State of the Unions (1924-28) and all four of Hoover's (1929-32) were written.  

Franklin D. Roosevelt consolidated the modern practice of delivering an oral State of the Union beginning with his first in 1934. However, there continued to be exceptions. In some cases there was only a written message and no spoken address. These include Truman (1946 and 1953), Eisenhower (1961), and Carter (1981). In some years there were both written messages and oral addresses. Nixon in 1972 presented both an oral address and a written message. In 1973 and 1974, Nixon submitted multiple documents entitled "State of the Union."  In addition, Carter also spoke and wrote in 1978, 1979, and 1980. Roosevelt's last (1945) and Eisenhower's 4th (1956) were technically written messages although they also addressed the American people via radio summarizing their reports (rather than speaking to a Joint Session of Congress). Scholarly research needs to recognize the variability in these practices.

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 technically 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 was 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. 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. Since 1934, the State of the Union has been 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 the President's term.

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. However, like Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton, he chose not to do so. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter chose to do so.


President years
of term
Delivered as a Speech
Political Time (see essay above)
1st 2nd 3rd 4th end 4th
Delivered as a Written Message
Political Time (see essay above)
1st 2nd 3rd 4th end 4th
Barack Obama 2013-pres. 2013 2014 2015
2009-2013 2009* 2010 2011 2012
George W. Bush 2005-2009 2005 2006 2007 2008
2001-2005 2001* 2002 2003 2004
William J. Clinton 1997-2001 1997 1998 1999 2000
1993-1997 1993* 1994 1995 1996
George Bush 1989-1993 1989* 1990 1991 1992
Ronald Reagan 1985-1989 1985 1986 1987 1988
1981-1985 1981* 1982 1983 1984
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981 1978 1979 1980 1978 1979 1980 1981
Gerald R. Ford 1974-1977 1975 1976 1977
Richard M. Nixon 1973-1974 1974 1973† 1974
1969-1973 1970 1971 1972 1972
Lyndon B. Johnson 1965-1969 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
1964-1965 1964
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963 1961 1962 1963
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1957-1961 1957 1958 1959 1960 1961
1953-1957 1953 1954 1955 1956‡ 1956
Harry S Truman 1949-1953 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953
1945-1949 1947 1948 1946
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1945 1945 1945
1941-1945 1941 1942 1943 1944
1937-1941 1937 1938 1939 1940
1933-1937 1934 1935 1936
Herbert Hoover 1929-1933 1929 1930 1931 1932
Calvin Coolidge 1925-1929 1925 1926 1927 1928
1923-1925 1923 1924
Warren G. Harding 1921-1923 1921 1922
Woodrow Wilson 1917-1921 1917 1918 1919 1920
1913-1917 1913 1914 1915 1916
William Howard Taft 1909-1913 1909 1910 1911 1912
Theodore Roosevelt 1905-1909 1905 1906 1907 1908
1901-1905 1901 1902 1903 1904
William McKinley 1897-1901 1897 1898 1899 1900
Grover Cleveland 1893-1897 1893 1894 1895 1896
Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893 1889 1890 1891 1892
Grover Cleveland 1885-1889 1885 1886 1887 1888
Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885 1881 1882 1883 1884
James A. Garfield 1881 no messages
Rutherford B. Hayes 1877-1881 1877 1878 1879 1880
Ulysses S. Grant 1873-1877 1873 1874 1875 1876
1869-1873 1869 1870 1871 1872
Andrew Johnson 1865-1869 1865 1866 1867 1868
Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865 1861 1862 1863 1864
James Buchanan 1857-1861 1857 1858 1859 1860
Franklin Pierce 1853-1857 1853 1854 1855 1856
Millard Fillmore 1850-1853 1850 1851 1852
Zachary Taylor 1849-1850 1849
James K. Polk 1845-1849 1845 1846 1847 1848
John Tyler 1841-1845 1841 1842 1843 1844
William Henry Harrison 1841 no messages
Martin Van Buren 1837-1841 1837 1838 1839 1840
Andrew Jackson 1833-1837 1833 1834 1835 1836
1829-1833 1829 1830 1831 1832
John Quincy Adams 1825-1829 1825 1826 1827 1828
James Monroe 1821-1825 1821 1822 1823 1824
1817-1821 1817 1818 1819 1820
James Madison 1813-1817 1813 1814 1815 1816
1809-1813 1809 1810 1811 1812
Thomas Jefferson 1805-1809 1805 1806 1807 1808
1801-1805 1801 1802 1803 1804
John Adams 1797-1801 1797 1798 1799 1800
George Washington 1793-1797 1793 1794 1795 1796
1789-1793 1790 1790 1791 1792

* Technically not a "State of the Union" Address.   See explanation in essay above this table
In 1956 President Eisenhower sent a written message to Congress, and also addressed the Nation via radio with a summary of his message. He did not deliver a speech before a joint session of Congress.
In 1945 President Roosevelt sent a written message to Congress, and also addressed the Nation via radio with a summary of his message. He did not deliver a speech before a joint session of Congress.

† In 1973 President Nixon delivered a series of six written State of the Union messages to Congress. One message was an overview, followed by five additional messages each of which focused on a specific public policy theme. The president also delivered a radio address to the nation before each policy-specific message was sent to Congress. Links to each individual message and radio address are below:
February 2, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress: Overview and Goals
February 15, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Natural Resources and the Environment
February 22, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on the Economy
March 1, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Human Resources
March 8, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Community Development
March 14, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and Drug Abuse Prevention
February 14, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Natural Resources and the Environment
February 21, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on the Economy
February 24, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Human Resources
March 4, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Community Development
March 10, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Law Enforcement and Drug Abuse Prevention
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