When the State of the Union was controversial

A little more than 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson had Washington, D.C., "agape" at his decision to deliver the State of the Union address in-person to Congress.

It was the first time in more than a century that a president had the gall to do such a thing. Since the early 1800s, the address was delivered in writing.

Here's how the Post covered that speech back in 1913:

And here's the full story:

House and Senate Members Delve into old tomes to learn proper course of procedure - address may be answered by Delegation from Both Branches. Legislators Will Formally Invite the President to Appear before them. Underwood takes Initiative in house. Custom was storm center when Jefferson assumed Presidency, and He Abandoned It to prevent embarrassment - Senate Fears President May Want to Discuss Treaties.

Going back to a practice abandoned 112 years ago, President Wilson will appear tomorrow before a joint session of the Senate and House in the latter's chamber, and deliver in person, as an address, the message he has prepared outlining the business for which he has called the Congress together in extraordinary session. John Adams, George Washington's successor, was the last President of the United States to take advantage of this constitutional right. That was in 1801.

Official Washington Agape.

All official Washington was agape last night over the decision of the President to go back to the long-abandoned custom. Strangely enough, there was a little criticism of what the President "intends" to do. The absence of any strictures on his course may be due, however, to the fact that senators and representatives are too astonished over what some of them regard as a startling move to give any coherent expression to their views.

Wilson Seeks Intimacy.

Disbelief was expressed in congressional circles when the report that the President would read his message in person to the Congress was first circulated. Direct confirmation of the report was obtained, however, from Joseph P. Tumulty, secretary to the President.
After a consultation with Mr. Wilson, Secretary Tumulty said that the President had told him that the report was correct. Washington and Adams had delivered their messages in the form of addresses in person, the President said, and he regarded the practice as a dignified way of bringing about a closer intimacy between Congress and the executive.

Not to Become a Habit.

No explanation of the reason for the President's intent to revive the long-abandoned constitution right was forthcoming. Mr. Tumulty said later, in response to a question, that the President did not intend to make a practice of personally appearing before the Congress to read all the messages he would have to communicate, but probably would confine himself to the personal delivery only of his annual messages at the opening of a regular session, and messages to be delivered at any other extra session he might determine to call for a special purpose.

Should the Senate and the House follow precedent established in the days of Washington and Adams, each house will adopt a reply to President Wilson's address, and it will be delivered to him by the Speaker of the House attended by the membership of that body and some member of the Senate, specially selected for the purpose, attended by all his associates. Whether this practice shall be followed had not been given consideration by the Congress leaders last night.

Leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives are delving into old tomes tonight to find out what is the course proper for them to pursue. The records show that whenever President Washington wanted to deliver an address in person to Congress he would notify the house before which he would appear that he intended "to meet and advise" with that body on a specified date.

It is intended by the Congress leaders however, to save President Wilson any diffidence he may feel about inviting himself to come in person into the halls of Congress for the purpose of meeting and advising the legislative branch of the government, but having both houses adopt a resolution asking the President to read his message in person.

Representative Oscar W. Underwood, of Alabama, the Democratic floor leader in the House, will take the initiative in this procedure after the House has organized today. He will present a concurrent resolution, which will require the approval of both the house and the Senate, extending the invitation to the President, and in the same resolution or in a separate resolution, to e adopted by the House alone, the members of the Senate will be invited to appear in the hall of the House to listen to the delivery of the address.

Custom an Old Storm Center.

In reverting to the custom, Mr. Wilson will revive a custom which was a storm center in its time and which President Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the Democratic party, abandoned as he said in a communication to the presiding officers of the two houses, out of "regard to the economy of their time, to their relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them, and to benefits thence resulting to public affairs."

It was commonly understood at the time, and historians have since accepted it, that President Jefferson's abandonment of the "President's speech" was part of his scheme for restoring the government to Democratic simplicity.
The President's speech, as it obtained under President Washington and President Adams, was a serious affair, and in Adams' administration it was the occasion for an upheaval in the House.

Replies Were an Inconvenience.

The custom was for the President to inform the houses that he would meet with them at a time mentioned either in the hall of the House or the Senate chamber and then lay before them the state of the Union. On such occasions accompanied sometimes by his secretary and sometimes by his entire cabinet, the President took the place of the presiding officer of the body receiving him, and the two presiding officers sat beside him.

The inconvenience to which Jefferson referred in his note had chiefly to do with the "answers to the speech," which both houses have regularly made after extensive deliberation. These answers were somewhat analogous to the speech the prime minister of England makes today in reply to the monarch's speech from the throne, though as it was a bipartisan affair, it included what would now be called the reply of the leader of the opposition. The answers of the two houses were delivered separately to the President, each house proceeding in a body to the President's residence, and were delivered orally, the President replaying in complimentary terms.

Republicans Are Amused.

Republicans last night were laughing over the possibility of replies being expected to the President's speech and over the kind of attendance there would be for a procession of either chamber from the Capitol to the White house to thank the President for his remarks. The President's speech will be on the tariff, and it is suggested that it would be certainly August before an answer could be agreed upon. The seat of government was not in Washington when the speeches obtained, and it is thought that a walk to the White House from the Capitol is longer than the procession demanded of congressmen to the President's house in what were the small towns of Philadelphia and New York.

The procession of thanks brought to a head the first outburst against the custom. Matthew Lyons, of the Jefferson school, a representative from Vermont refused to march in the procession to acknowledge President Adams' speech and the Federalists in the House assailed him with striking unanimity and startling frankness. A resolution was offered call for Mr. Lyons' expulsion as a "diabolical personage."

Effect of Lyons Incident.

The Lyons incident is thought to have had a good deal to do with Mr. Jefferson's decision not to follow the precedent set by Washington and his immediate predecessor, Adams. Both these presidents, by the way, were political adversaries of Jefferson and that too, probably counted in his decision. But it was Lyons who apparently led Mr. Jefferson to commit himself against the "monarchial" custom of the first two executives.

Mr. Lyons was so bitterly hostile to President Adams that, representative though he was indicted for criminal libel, and, failing to pay a fine, was imprisoned in Vermont. As a Democrat of the French school, Mr. Lyons had the ardent sympathy of Thomas Jefferson and his following in Virginia. The raised a purse to pay the fine, and a local leader was dispatched on horseback to convey the fine and set Mr. Lyons free. He at once returned to Congress, refused to take part in the respectful thanks returned to Mr. Adams, and the expulsion proceeding followed.

Jefferson Ended Custom.

When Mr. Jefferson was elected to the Presidency it is thought his mind was already made up against the speech and in his letter to the presiding officers announcing his intention to send a message
in writing," he added that he would follow that custom for the rest of his term. The custom has been followed by succeeding Presidents ever since.

How bitterly this course was attacked at the time by the Federalists of the Washington school can be judged from a passage in McMaster's History of America. On account of this custom, says the history, Lyons had borne the jeers of Congress and the abuse of the Federal press.

"Those men who sneered at Lyons," it goes on, "now sneered at Jefferson. The manners of Democracy had given a strange illustration of his Republican (then the name of the Democratic party) principles. For years his friends had been open-mouthed against the carriage-driving and aristocratic tastes of Washington, and that he was not to be seen sauntering along the streets, loitering in taverns, and that he was not accessible at his house to every filthy sans-culotte who chose to knock at his door.

Addressed as Frenchmen.

"They had supposed that the new President would correct all this and give his countrymen a lesson in Republican behavior. But contrast the behavior of Jefferson with the behavior of Washington. When a session of Congress was about to begin, it was the custom of the great soldier to meet the two houses in the Senate chamber, disclose his sentiments on public affairs in a simple speech and receive in return the respectful assurances that his words and suggestions would be well considered. What could be simpler or more truly republican?

"But Jefferson has reversed all this, stays in his place like an Eastern prince, hides himself from the popular gaze, bids his secretary carry a note to Congress, whom he addressees in the French style of 'fellow citizens.' Might he not at least have said 'Gentlemen and fellow citizens?' Then all the members would have been included, as there were still some federalists in the Senate and House."

Senate Fears and Treaties

The strong position President Wilson has assumed in the conduct of foreign affairs has raised the interesting question as to whether the President will use his undoubted prerogative to discuss treaties with the Senate in its executive sessions behind closed doors. George Washington was the only President ever to do that, and his experiences on two days decided him not to repeat the occasion. He simply informed the Senate on August 21, 1789, that on the next day he would meet to advise with them concerning an Indian treaty. That he did being received under the Senate rule of those days as the head of the Senate, though occupying a seat on the floor. The tradition is that he liked so little the cross-questioning to which his treaty was subjected that when he left the chamber after the second session, he muttered to a member of his cabinet.

"I've been to the Senate and I'll be damned if I ever go there again."

Brian's Ovation in House

William Jennings Bryan himself has already figured in an incident remotely connected with what President Wilson proposes to do. And as the President is known to favor giving his cabinet a voice in the proceedings of both houses, the connection is not too remote. After his fame as Democratic presidential candidate was established Mr. Bryan, as a former member of the House, visited the floor several times and entirely suspended proceedings with the reception he held for the Democratic members. On one such occasion a stenographer inserted in the Record:

"At this point, Mr. Bryan entered the Chamber and received an ovation."

Speaker Thomas B. Reed had always objected to Mr. Bryan's visits, and the next day when he saw the entry in the Record he was furious. Yielding the chair to the Speaker pro tempore he addressed the House from the floor and criticized the "improper" conduct of the stenographer. On the Speaker's motion the reference to Mr. Bryan's visit was stricken out.

Grant and Lincoln at Capitol

While no President since Adam's time has addressed either house or as far as the records show, visited the floors of either house while they were in session, both President Grant and President Lincoln were familiar figures at the Capitol. Mr. Grant confined his visits to the room of Speaker James G. Blaine, a personal friend. But Mr. Lincoln, in the stress of war legislation, occupied the President's room and conferred at close range with his friends in the Senate.

Asher C. Hines, now a representative from. Maine, but formerly parliamentary clerk under Speaker Cannon, said last night that the custom of addressing Congress, which Mr. Wilson will revive, still obtains in Maine and some of the older States. The States got the practice from England following the analogy of the speech from the throne.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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