In brief remarks -- barely over 1,000 words -- President George Washington delivered a special report to his “fellow-citizens” of Congress in New York City on Jan. 8, 1790. Despite its brevity, the speech laid the groundwork for the presidential tradition known today as the State of the Union address.
The annual event, which has morphed into an hourlong nationally televised affair that includes pageantry and rebuttals, stems from a simple requirement in the Constitution.
“He shall from time to time give to 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 reads.
Since Washington started the tradition, the speech has undergone several changes. For one thing, its delivery went from spoken to written after Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800. In 1913, the speech returned to the spoken word and since then has largely stayed that way.
Each year, the president delivers remarks in the House chamber packed with members of both houses of Congress, Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s top advisors, foreign dignitaries and guests. With the nation’s top government officials all in one room, the commander-in-chief taps one Cabinet member to stay behind as “designated survivor” in case an emergency disrupts the presidential line of succession.
As President Obama prepares for his fifth State of the Union speech on Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. PST, test your knowledge of past speeches and the tradition surrounding the address.