House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a keen sense of history. By demanding that President Donald Trump wither postpone the State of the Union address until the government shutdown ends or deliver a written statement, she has raised the possibility that we might finally get rid of a ritual that has devolved into empty political theater.
The speech takes its name from the clause in the Constitution stipulating 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.”
Like much of the Constitution, this language left the particulars up for grabs. How often, for example, was the president supposed to brief Congress? George Washington delivered the first such speech on Jan. 8, 1790. It was short and sweet: a mere 1,089 words. A year later he reprised the act, which set the precedent of an annual address, with Congress expected to send a written reply.
John Adams continued the practice, but by this time, the growing divisions between the nation’s first political parties — the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans — cast a growing shadow. For Thomas Jefferson, who served as vice president during Adams’s second term, the rite, like so many pretensions of the Federalists, had a distasteful monarchical flavor.
The pomp reminded the Democratic Republicans of a longstanding British practice: the “speech from the throne” that the monarch delivered before Parliament that set out his (or her) directions for the course of lawmaking.
And so, when Jefferson narrowly secured the presidency after the contested election of 1800, this self-styled advocate for the common man abandoned the ritual altogether.
Instead, Jefferson sent a written message that his personal secretary read to the assembled House and Senate. By way of explanation, his missive simply noted that it was “inconvenient” to require that everyone be present for a speech and that he wished to recognize “the economy” of the legislators’ time and offer them “relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them.”
How thoughtful! But this move, which appeared to reflect the president’s simplicity and practicality, was likely motivated by entirely different considerations. One, Jefferson was a notoriously bad public speaker, and likely suffered from acute stage fright. The man he defeated for the presidency, John Adams, once recalled: “during the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” Likewise, Jefferson delivered his inaugural addresses in so soft and low a voice that people standing very close to him could not make out the words.
This explanation has plenty of merit, but Jefferson may have had another reason for foregoing a speech. In his private writings, he claimed that his written message — which did not contain the customary request for a reply — had “prevented the bloody conflicts to which the making an answer would have committed them.” He would later write: “the sending a message, instead of making a speech to be answered, is acknowledged to have had the best effect towards preserving harmony.”
Whatever the real reason, Jefferson’s decision to phone in the annual message became a new tradition. Presidents sent Congress increasingly long written annual messages throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.
That was the practice until that irrepressible busybody and self-styled orator, Woodrow Wilson, decided to go old school, reviving the custom of giving an actual speech to a captive audience.
Congress wasn’t certain what to make of the change. Wilson’s opponents pointed out that he was bringing back an older Federalist tradition that he, a capital-D Democratic, should eschew. Representative John Sharp Williams, a member of Wilson’s own party, invoked the decline of Rome, claiming to see the “dread shadow of Caesarism hovering over the Capitol” in Wilson’s pending visit.
But the president would not be denied. The press supported him because the event made for good copy. The Washington Post declared: “With a sweep of decision that shattered precedent, the president brushed aside all imaginary boundaries between Congress and the executive office.”
Ever the idealist, Wilson later declared that he had shown up in person to underscore that he was not a distant authority, but a “President who is a human being, trying to cooperate with other human beings.” In reality, Wilson’s decision had a great deal to do with tariff legislation he was trying to get passed, and he used the occasion to beat that particular drum.
So many of the ridiculous rituals that now pervade the annual State of the Union address date back to this fateful speech: the interruptions for applause, the seating of presidential family members and VIPs; the specious claims of unity and common interest, even as the president attempts to drive forward some divisive political agenda; and the inevitable postmortems in the press. Subsequent presidents embraced the practice, refining it to accommodate radio, and eventually, television.
And now, Trump and Pelosi have a golden opportunity to resurrect the written message. It has so many obvious advantages: it’s painless, cheap, and it certainly doesn’t screw up regular television programming.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.