Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

The State of the Union: Showtime

President Harry Truman gives the State of the Union Address in 1950/tiles/non-collection/1/1-26-Truman-SOTU-2006_124_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
In this 1950 postcard image, Congress gathered to hear President Harry Truman's State of the Union in a House Chamber that was half old and half new. Engineers had just installed a new roof and ceiling and renovated the gallery level. Later that year, a new wooden rostrum replaced the original marble.
The State of the Union is a tradition of American government enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

“[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.”
- Article II, Section 3, Clause 1

Though President George Washington initiated the practice of delivering the speech in person before a Joint Session of Congress, President Thomas Jefferson rejected this method in favor of sending written messages to the House and Senate separately. For the next century, Presidents followed Jefferson's example and sent written Annual Messages to be read in Congress and inserted into the Congressional Record.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson brought back the practice of delivering addresses in person that Washington began in 1790. Dismissing old fears that presidential addresses to Congress too closely resembled the British monarch’s address before Parliament, Wilson launched a new tradition. Since Wilson, most Presidents have followed suit, giving rise to the annual Capitol Hill event that the State of the Union has become: an opportunity for the President to take his agenda to Congress and the public.

The Modern Address

We have collected several news clips of previous State of the Union addresses from the past 75 years to give a sense of how previous Presidents and Congresses approached the annual event.

In the first televised State of the Union address, President Harry Truman reassured the nation with a message that projected American unity in the aftermath of World War II.

In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, giving the first State of the Union address of his second term, laid out the American strategy for the Cold War by urging peace through deterrence and military strength.

President John F. Kennedy used his first State of the Union address in 1961 to tackle head-on both the economic recession facing the nation at the beginning of the 1960s and the threat of Soviet encroachments in Latin America. Behind Kennedy, on the President's left shoulder, sits Speaker Sam Rayburn at his final State of the Union address.

This clip from news coverage of the 1964 State of the Union address provides some background on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s preparation. Johnson had ascended to the presidency just two months prior, after the assassination of President Kennedy. In his first State of the Union, Johnson sought to reassure a tense and uncertain nation and set a path forward for his new administration.

Following Along With @USHouseHistory

That brings us to this week’s State of the Union address. Dedicated followers of the office’s Twitter account know that each year they can expect a series of tweets from the @USHouseHistory account providing a glimpse at speeches past and what goes into preparing for a State of the Union address. Additionally, we answer commonly asked questions about what goes on in the House Chamber. One popular query in years past has been the silver inkstand which appears on the Speaker’s rostrum anytime the House is in session.

Today, the House Chamber features theater style seating and a wooden rostrum, but it wasn’t always that way. More than 150 years ago, when Annual Messages were more often submitted to Congress in writing than in person, Members occupied individual desks before an immense marble rostrum. The individual desks were replaced by curved segmented desks in 1901 and then by the seating we see today in 1913. The walnut rostrum replaced the grand, but heavy, marble rostrum in 1950 during a remodel of the chamber.

Stay tuned to @USHouseHistory on Tuesday night!