When President Trump steps into the well of the House on Tuesday to give his first formal State of the Union address, he will be performing one of the most familiar presidential rituals.
But for nearly half the nation’s history, the idea of a president personally delivering a speech on Congress’s turf was considered an act so presumptuous as to be nearly unthinkable.
The president who broke the mold — and introduced the kind of speech that modern Americans expect to hear each year — was Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson tested out the idea barely a month after his 1913 inauguration, when he traveled to Capitol Hill to give a speech on tariffs.
“Washington is amazed,” The Washington Post pronounced in a headline, over a story that noted no president since John Adams had done such a thing.
“Disbelief was expressed in congressional circles when the report that the President would read his message in person to the Congress was first circulated,” The Post reported, but assured its readers that such spectacles were “not to become a habit.”
Wilson had other ideas. Eight months later on December, 2, 1913, he returned to Capitol Hill “in pursuance of my constitutional duty to ‘give to the Congress information of the state of the Union.’”
It is indeed spelled out in Article II of the Constitution, 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.”
But Thomas Jefferson, inaugurated in 1801, had discontinued the practice of doing it in person — in part to avoid the ordeal of slogging the muddy thoroughfare of Pennsylvania Avenue to the new Capitol, and also, perhaps, because he was terrified of public speaking.
Wilson’s decision to deliver the message as a speech was more than just an attention-grabbing move. It also reflected his view of how a president should use his power.
“He deliberately wanted to break the precedent,” said John Milton Cooper Jr., a University of Wisconsin history professor emeritus and author of a 2009 biography.
Wilson believed that the framers of the Constitution had made a mistake in delineating such a strong separation of powers among the three branches of government, Cooper explained.
Along with most Progressives of the era, he believed a melding of the roles to be more democratic, because it would be more responsive to public opinion.
The 28th president also upended the order that had existed throughout most of the 19th century, in which most policymaking began with Congress. He employed his State of the Union address to set in motion an agenda of his own.
“As a legislative presence, he ranks up there with FDR and LBJ,” Cooper said.
Wilson’s abilities as a prophet, however, were not so great.
He opened his speech with a declaration, as most presidents have since, of how well the nation was doing under his watch.
“The country, I am thankful to say, is at peace with all the world, and many happy manifestations multiply about us of a growing cordiality and sense of community of interest among the nations, foreshadowing an age of settled peace and good will,” Wilson declared.
Less than four years later, the United States would enter World War I.
Wilson would give five more State of the Union addresses, but was unable to do so in his final two years, after a debilitating stroke.
“That hurt. That hurt a lot for him,” Cooper said.
But subsequent presidents, with the exception of Herbert Hoover, liked the idea of the speech, and picked up the practice.
It was made all the more appealing by the advent of mass media, which turned what once was a message to Congress into an opportunity for a president to spell out his priorities and vision directly to the American people, instantaneously and unfiltered.
Warren Harding gave his to a limited radio audience in 1922, and Calvin Coolidge was the first to be able to broadcast it to a national one in 1923. Harry Truman took his to the new medium of television in 1947; a half-century later, Bill Clinton’s was live-streamed on the Internet.
Wilson closed his first State of the Union address by expressing his hopes that the executive and legislative branches of government would continue to work closely together.
“Surely it is a proper and pertinent part of my report on ‘the state of the Union’ to express my admiration for the diligence, the good temper, and the full comprehension of public duty which has already been manifested by both the houses,” he said. “And I hope that it may not be deemed an impertinent intrusion of myself into the picture if I say with how much and how constant satisfaction I have availed myself of the privilege of putting my time and energy at their disposal alike in counsel and in action.”
In other words: See you next year.
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