George Washington on an engraving from 1859. (iStock)

The president stepped into uncharted territory as he prepared to address Congress.

It was Jan. 8, 1790, the dawn of a new era of politics and government in the United States. George Washington, the first president of the new nation, had arrived by carriage at Federal Hall in New York, the temporary capital, to deliver a speech to the first Congress.

The powers and responsibilities of the office held by Washington remained in significant ways undefined in the early years of the Republic. There was “an elected president,” author Fergus M. Bordewich has written,“ but little agreement on what his job entailed.”

There was even uncertainty about decorum. Congress wrangled over the title for the chief executive — with Vice President John Adams favoring aristocratic-sounding titles such as “His Highness” or “His High Mightiness,” according to Bordewich — before agreeing to address him simply as “President of the United States.”

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The reason for Washington’s visit to Congress exemplified the ambiguities he faced. The Constitution, the national governing charter that had recently replaced the unwieldy Articles of Confederation, required the chief executive to provide the House and Senate with “information on the State of the Union, and to recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It said nothing about how that information was to be delivered.

Washington decided to do it in person — and in so doing established a precedent whose revival in the early 20th century by Woodrow Wilson has established a familiar — and, in the views of some, tiresome — piece of political theater in Washington.

On Tuesday night, President Trump will deliver his State of the Union, which was postponed during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history after a dust-up with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

Unlike in George Washington’s time, the occasion is used by presidents to do more than simply report on the condition of the nation. The speech gives presidents the opportunity to rally Congress — and, with the advent of television, the viewing public — to their political and policy agendas. Congressional supporters erupt with cheers, applause and standing ovations. Political opponents register their displeasure by sitting silently or, occasionally, heckling the commander in chief.


President Trump delivers remarks on border security and the partial government shutdown last month in front of a portrait of George Washington in the White House Diplomatic Room. (Yuri Gripas)

Some would not mourn the demise of the annual event. Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and the former GOP governor of Indiana, called it a “tasteless, classless spectacle” that “diminishes rather than elevates respect for the United States and its institutions.”

Syndicated columnist George F. Will described the State of the Union address in 2013 as a “spawn of democratic Caesarism — presidency worship — [that] has become grotesque. It would be the most embarrassing ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy, were the nation still capable of being embarrassed by its puerile faith in presidential magic.”

In New York more than 200 years earlier, however, there was dignity and a relative lack of the melodramatic pomp and circumstance modern observers find so objectionable.

Hours before Washington arrived, the Senate chamber — where Washington would make his address — was a scene of chaos as lawmakers scrambled to rearrange furniture to get the room ready for the speech.

“All this morning nothing but bustle about the Senate chamber in hauling chairs and removing tables,” Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania recorded in his journal.

Stepping into a bright yellow coach, Washington left his official residence at 11 a.m. in a procession headed by two aides riding large, white horses, Bordewich writes. The House and Senate doorkeepers greeted Washington at the entrance and accompanied him to the Senate chamber, into which both houses of Congress were squeezed. The Senate — with Adams — sat on Washington’s right. The House and its speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, sat on the left. Members of Washington’s family, along with a retinue of department heads, were also present, according to Maclay.


Federal Hall in New York City in 1789. (Library of Congress)

When the time came, Washington delivered a 1,100-word address without applause lines or references to honored guests. He permitted himself the occasional rhetorical flourish, but for the most part confined himself to a fairly dry to-do list for a nation still in its infancy.

The president celebrated North Carolina’s decision to ratify the Constitution. He rejoiced in “the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed are circumstances auspicious in an eminent degree to our national prosperity.”

He urged “uniformity” in currency, weights and measures and asked that Congress provide money to support the conduct of foreign relations. He congratulated the House on its endorsement of “an adequate provision for the support of the public credit.”

Not surprisingly, Washington, a lifelong military man, devoted a considerable portion of the speech to national defense. “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace,” he counseled.

The speech also foreshadowed another issue that continues to dominate American politics: immigration. “Various considerations also render it expedient that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization,” Washington urged.

Maclay, who possessed “plebeian instincts that were at odds with those of his more elite colleagues,” according to Bordewich, reacted with ambivalence to the proceedings.

He conceded that Washington “read his speech well” but seemed relieved that the “business was soon over.” The senator directed his fire at colleagues who he thought were too eager in the days that followed to endorse the speech with what he characterized as “the most servile echo I have ever heard.”


George Washington (Library of Congress)

Washington delivered seven more State of the Union addresses. In his last, in 1796, he congratulated Congress “on the success of the experiment” in republican governance that began with the ratification of the Constitution.

The tradition of the State of the Union address did not fare as well. Adams, who succeeded Washington, delivered four during his term in office, but his successor, Thomas Jefferson, ended the practice in 1801 and submitted a written report to Congress instead. The symbolism of the speech — understated though it was compared to its modern manifestations — troubled the man from Monticello, who feared monarchical aggrandizement.

“While he highly approved of noble public buildings as civic temples, he strongly objected to any glorification of rulers,” Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone has written. “To him public officials in a self-governing society were public servants and should appear as such.”

In the years that followed, presidents followed Jefferson’s example and delivered their constitutionally required reports in writing. More than a century later, another Virginian — Wilson — revived the address to Congress, for precisely the reasons Jefferson found objectionable.

“Wilson’s decision to deliver the message as a speech was more than just an attention-grabbing move,” The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty wrote. “It also reflected his view of how a president should use his power.”

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