These days, the State of the Union—the yearly speech by the U.S. president in front of the two houses of Congress, giving his view on the state of the nation and his legislative goals for the year—is as familiar a winter tradition as failing New Year’s resolutions and playoff football. But though its roots go all the way back to the nation’s founding, the State of the Union as we know it is a thoroughly modern tradition.
What is the State of the Union?
Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states 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.”
According to the National Archives, George Washington first fulfilled this particular presidential duty on January 8, 1790, when he addressed the new Congress in the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall in New York City (then the U.S. capital). But Thomas Jefferson, the third president, chose to give his annual message to Congress in writing rather than make the trek to the Capitol—kicking off a tradition that would last nearly a century.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson decided to buck that tradition. Shortly after his inauguration, Wilson went to Capitol Hill to make a speech about tariffs, becoming the first president since John Adams to presume to address Congress directly, on its own turf. That December, Wilson returned before Congress to give the first modern State of the Union address (though it wouldn’t officially be called that until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency).
The Executive Branch Addresses Congress
The Constitution put into place a deliberate separation of powers between the three branches of the federal government, tasking the legislative branch with making the nation’s laws, the executive branch with enforcing them and the judicial branch with interpreting and applying them.
But Wilson, a Progressive Democrat, believed the nation would benefit from a more active, visible president working alongside Congress in the lawmaking process. By choosing to deliver his annual message directly to Congress, citing the authority of the Constitution, Wilson sought to redefine the president’s role.
Since Wilson, presidents have chosen to go before Congress to deliver their annual messages, though some presidents reverted to a written message at times. With the advent of radio, television and the Internet, the State of the Union has become an even bigger opportunity for presidents to speak directly to Americans, including highlighting achievements and outlining priorities and policies for the future. An estimated 48 million people watched President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress in February 2017, considered the first-term equivalent of the State of the Union.
Supreme Court Justices and the State Of The Union
In its mandate that the president inform Congress about the state of the union, the Constitution doesn’t mention the judicial branch of government. Still, it’s become customary for Supreme Court justices to sit front and center, dressed in their official black robes, during the State of the Union.
Not all justices have chosen to observe this custom, however. Justice Antonin Scalia (who died in 2016) stopped attending the State of the Union in 1997, reportedly calling it “a childish spectacle." Justice Clarence Thomas also regularly skips the event, and Justice Samuel Alito hasn’t attended since 2010, when he visibly expressed disapproval over President Barack Obama’s criticism of the Court’s decision in the controversial Citizens United case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not attend President Trump’s State of the Union in 2018, just as she did not attend his joint address to Congress in 2017. (Neither did Thomas or Alito.)
State of the Union Protocol
The president doesn’t just show up to deliver the State of the Union—the speaker of the House of Representatives sends him a written invitation to appear before the two houses of Congress. After traveling by motorcade from the White House to the Capitol, the president enters the House Chamber, where members of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the president’s cabinet and the diplomatic corps and invited guests are waiting.
After the sergeant-at-arms announces his entrance, the president makes his speech, with the top members of Congress—the Vice President and the Speaker of the House—seated behind him. During and after the speech, you can usually expect members of the president’s own party to stand and applaud, while members of the opposition party stay silently seated.
At the end of each State of the Union, you can expect the president to close with a familiar line: “The state of the Union is strong.”