When Woodrow Wilson became President a century ago, he smashed an old tradition. Wilson had long suspected that the President could act as a prime minister for Congress, formulating party program and directing party strategy. The secret to this kind of leadership was the use of oratorical power to convince others of what was in the public interest. Wilson intended to replace written presidential messages with a direct address to a joint session, expecting this would seize the imagination of the country, give him the momentum to enact his policies, and set a new tone for the administration.
The State of the Union Address as national ceremony is not that old. While the Constitution mandates 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" (Article II, section 3), this duty has been performed in many ways. The first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, came to Congress amid great pomp to read the Message themselves. For Thomas Jefferson, the third President, these occasions too closely recalled the English monarch's address from the throne to open Parliament. Jefferson also hated public speaking, preferring to wield a pen.
As a result, in 1801 Jefferson set a new precedent by sending the Annual Message as a document. Clerks would read the Message into the record, over time to largely empty chambers. Later Presidents merely summarized the annual reports of the executive departments, justifying budget requests rather than offering policy recommendations. President Theodore Roosevelt, however, knew the Annual Messages were widely distributed and held great potential. His messages looked forward rather than backward, justifying new goals and proposals for the nation. A professional writer, Roosevelt crafted Messages that would be clear, memorable, and win public support.
When Wilson announced he would address Congress directly, agitated critics exhumed Jeffersonian fears of monarchy. Yet on December 2, 1913, the second afternoon of the 63rd Congress (1913–1915), the President arrived at the Capitol and was escorted to the House Chamber. Ten minutes later he left as Congress applauded his words. As the President rode back to the White House with his wife, the First Lady remarked to her husband that he had done something that his political rival, the flamboyant Roosevelt would have done "if only he had thought of it."
"Yes," laughed Wilson, "I think I put one over on Teddy."