Fifty years ago—on January 12, 1966—House Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford and Senator Everett Dirksen delivered the first formal, televised, opposition-party response to the President’s State of the Union Address. This innovation arose just a year after the speech moved to a prime-time format, riveting the attention of a national television audience on what has become an annual political ritual.
In one form or another, Members of Congress have always been at the ready to offer up their response to the Presidents’ addresses—most recently in the instantaneous commentary rendered by scores of individual Members on social media and before the banks of cameras that, for one night, transform Statuary Hall into a noisy makeshift television studio.
During the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, that process was more genteel and singular, but no less contentious. In the 1790s, both houses of Congress drafted, debated, and marched en masse to the President’s mansion to deliver a formal, unified response, addressing the important issues raised by the executive. That is, until one volatile Member of the House dared to wonder aloud what the fuss was all about.
As with so many other practices relating to the function of the federal government, President Washington established key precedents for the format and setting of the speech that, until 1947, was known as the President’s Annual Message. Accompanied by his cabinet, Washington visited Congress in its quarters in New York City’s Federal Hall on January 8, 1790, and delivered his remarks to a Joint Session. Afterward, the House met in the Committee of the Whole, forcing Members from across the political spectrum to hash out a collaborative reply. Following this time-consuming and contentious process, all the Members of Congress paraded a short distance to the President’s residence to deliver their response in-person, with the Speaker reading the House’s reply aloud. The Senate gave its own separate response. This was followed by another exchange, this time from the President to the House and Senate. This practice continued through Washington’s presidency.
Washington’s successor, President Adams, continued this routine, but increasing partisan factionalism soon led to controversy. In May of 1797—months before he would deliver his first Annual Message—Adams convened Congress in the capital city of Philadelphia for a special address to discuss the increasing tensions between the United States and France. In this setting, the same formalities prevailed. The President spoke to a Joint Session in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall and then awaited both houses to deliver a response at the President’s residence about one block away.
Freshman Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a free-wheeling Revolutionary War veteran, seized on Adams’ May 1797 speech to call the entire practice into question. Lyon had immigrated to Connecticut as an indentured servant and subsequently became a successful printer and business owner in Fair Haven, Vermont. But just two months into his first term, Lyon already was signaling that his would be a career rife with controversy. In early 1798, after spitting at Roger Griswold of Connecticut on the House Floor, and nearly being expelled for it, he and Griswold jousted in the chamber with fire tongs and a cane, respectively. Caricatured as unruly and unsophisticated by the press, “Mat, the Democrat” clashed with the Adams administration and the Federalist faction throughout his House career.
Skeptical of privilege, aggressively democratic, and dubious of enshrining such traditions in a revolutionary age, Lyon decried the ceremonial nature of the presidential addresses to Congress. He rooted his crusade in a kind of egalitarian democracy; he envisioned an American political culture devoid of privilege and pageantry. Not only did he believe presidential messages smacked of monarchical pomp, but the onerous process of generating and delivering a reply offended Lyon’s sensibilities as a legislator and independent citizen.
As the House prepared its response to Adams’ May 1797 address, Lyon rose to voice his objection to the entire affair. Why should the House be obliged to make an appointment with the President? Why should Members be required to participate in the ceremonial procession? These degrading displays of deference, Lyon insisted, forced Members to shower the President with “vain adulation.” Instead, the President should be ready to meet with the House at all times, he said, dismissing the spectacle as “such a boyish piece of business.”
Adams’ Federalist allies howled from across the chamber. Many Members began to attack the Vermonter personally while citing past practice to defend the ritualistic dance of address and response. Always ready to challenge the existing social and political hierarchy, Lyon called their appeal to tradition “the cant used against every kind of reform.” This was a crisis of conscience equal to that of a Quaker forced to “make his obeisance to a magistrate,” and he wished to be excused from the procession. After a long debate on the floor, Lyon won a leave of absence.
So when Adams presented his first Annual Message on November 22, 1797, Lyon was once again ready to pounce on this “troublesome and greatly derided custom.” This time, however, he changed tactics, emphasizing its inefficiency by pointing out that the House wasted up to two weeks debating on each response.
As the House attempted to generate collective replies to the presidential messages in May and November of 1797, it divided over perceived political statements, word choices, and tone. Members delved into what they called the “phraseology” of the response to Adams’ annual message, using heated rhetoric to object to the wording and content. Abraham Venable of Virginia contemplated the implications of using “insist” or “expect” in a particular passage. Others, such as Speaker of the House Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, considered the “firmness of the tone” of the message. Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina wondered if the address was “polite” and urged his colleagues to “avoid all harsh expressions.” Edward Livingston of New York highlighted the essential difficulty in this process: individual Members might object to some of the political aspects of the President’s speech. Livingston thought that the House’s statement confirmed the President’s position about ongoing conflict in Europe, and emphasized that he “was not prepared to say this for his constituents.”
In an effort to compromise, Lyon proposed a short resolution stating that the House would appoint a small committee to meet with the President and assure him that the subjects he discussed would be “taken into full and mature consideration” with the public welfare in mind. The House, he said, “ought not to be bound by precedent, but every day endeavor to do better than they did the last.” Again, a majority rejected his proposal, and, when he tried to absent himself from the procession to the President’s residence, many were convinced that he had no right to excuse himself.
Members were more receptive to his argument about the inconvenience of the reply. Representative Venable, for example, supported Lyon’s call to change the practice, noting that it had “occasioned considerable embarrassment in the House” and caused a “delay of public business.” Representative Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania focused on House Rules when he weighed in on this matter. Gallatin questioned whether the House had the power to compel a Member to visit the President—or do anything outside of the walls of Congress Hall. Lyon agreed with Gallatin’s reasoning and ultimately withdrew his request, determining that he did not need permission to be absent from the procession.
Despite Lyon’s small personal victory, he was unable to force a change in the process. But he continued to be a thorn in the side of the Adams administration, so much so that he was the only Member of Congress to be convicted under the Sedition Act. In 1798, he spent four months in a Vermont prison for criticizing the President. Nevertheless, he was re-elected that year from his jail cell, only to return to Congress to face a resolution calling for his expulsion from the House. The two-thirds vote needed was not reached, however, and he remained in his seat and ultimately cast the deciding vote in the House to settle the disputed election in 1800 in favor of Thomas Jefferson.
President Jefferson tacitly acknowledged Lyon’s critique of the Annual Message by making substantial changes. He refused to visit Congress and instead sent his private secretary to read his messages—a precedent every President followed for the next 112 years. Gone, too, was the tedious drafting of a reply and the procession to the President’s residence. In the preamble to his first Annual Message in 1801, Jefferson made it clear that no response was necessary, as Congress was extremely busy and the “convenience of the legislature” concerned him. Privately, Jefferson told Benjamin Rush that these changes “prevented the bloody conflict to which the making [of] an answer would have committed them.”
Perhaps Lyon’s lasting contribution wasn’t political but rather procedural. He presciently noted the unwieldy nature of the congressional response to the President’s message. While Jefferson’s changes eliminated the Annual Message spectacle for more than a century, President Woodrow Wilson resurrected it by deciding to speak directly to Congress in 1913. Wilson’s Republican opponents responded with amusement, contemplating the long journey between the House Chamber in the Capitol to the White House in Washington, D.C., a greater distance than the walk their predecessors made in 1790s New York and Philadelphia. They also noted that if Wilson expected each house of Congress to draft a reply, he would wait nearly four months. Debating these issues—and bridging the divide between the parties—would be an even more time-consuming process in the twentieth century.
While Wilson didn’t revive the corresponding formal response from Congress—a decision that Matthew Lyon would surely have appreciated—he did firmly entrench the President’s address as a red-letter date on the nation’s political calendar. Having objected to the eighteenth-century pageantry of presidential addresses, Lyon would have been skeptical of the State of the Union’s twenty-first-century incarnation. But he may also have embraced the egalitarian aspect of the modern social media response that allows Members of Congress to use multiple platforms, freed from the need to coordinate and agree as one body.
Sources: Annals of Congress, 5th Cong., 1st and 2nd sess. (1797–1798); New York Times, 7 April 1913; Washington Post, 7 April 1913; Aleine Austin, Matthew Lyon: “New Man” of the Democratic Revolution, 1749–1822 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981); Jeremy D. Bailey, Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds., The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates: March 4 1789–March 3, 1791 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988); Gerhard Casper, “Executive-Congressional Separation of Power during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson,” Stanford Law Review 47, no. 3 (1995), 473–497; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008); Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, vol. 4, Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805 (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1970); J. Fairfax McLaughlin, Matthew Lyon: The Hampden of Congress, A Biography (New York: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Company, 1900); Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987); Charles Warren, Odd Byways in American History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942).Follow @USHouseHistory