On January 8, 1790, President George Washington appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his annual message at Federal Hall in New York City. This speech, called his first annual message to Congress (which we now refer to as the State of the Union), was short—in fact, it remains the shortest one ever.
Second President John Adams followed suit and spoke before Congress. But the third President, Thomas Jefferson, set a new tradition when he sent his messages in writing and did not appear before Congress.
That precedent stuck until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress.
Before Wilson, the annual messages were mostly a report to Congress of the activities of the Executive branch. But after Wilson, and the increased attention the speech received, it became a launching pad for Presidential initiatives and was used to raise support for the President’s legislative agenda.
Cartoonist Clifford Berryman captured former President Roosevelt’s chagrin at President Wilson’s appearance before Congress.
President George Washington’s first Annual Message to Congress, January 8, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)
“Now Why Didn’t I Think of That!” by Clifford K. Berryman, 4/8/1913. (National Archives Identifier 6011009)
Between each poem is a thought
of precision, between each comma
a sneeze. The tilting clutch
of verbs flange into petals unwithered,
awash in the joys of action:
To be bored all the time with people
and books and music; to flush all melodious
dreams into the sink; to wag and
wag and wag for blue-
berries to ripen in January;
to be sick from a quickstore tuna
sandwich and all nouns,
meaningless and proper.
Where is my accuracy when I am bone-
bored with the body, the fleshy mess
to propel about nowhere in particular?