The Second U.S. State of the Union Address


Updated on 09/24/2022

In the never-ending political theater whose current star is U.S. President Donald Trump, even something as mundane as the State of the Union Address had become an issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) had rescinded her invitation to the President to address a joint session of Congress, thus giving pundits everywhere more reason to yell at each other on various news networks. Her reason was simply that while the government shutdown continued, it would have been wrong to continue with the State of the Union since many of the employees of the Federal government who help preserve that very union, were working with no pay or not working at all. Some called her maneuver petty, but that some tended to be right-wing news outlets who had never met an issue not worth criticizing the Democratic Speaker over. As for the President, he continues to trundle along tweaking the media at every turn, pissing off half the country while getting smiles and in-spirit high-fives from his ever shrinking base. As of today there is a deal to re-open the government for at least a few weeks. Whether or not that means the State of the Union speech is back on is unclear.

In the opinion of, all the attention given to the State of the Union address is silly. For one thing, the only people who seem to care about the address itself are pundits and others looking for more grist for the television mill. State of the Union addresses are highly orchestrated political speeches that give little in terms of actionable measures or recommendations, the latter of which is the entire reason for having them. As stated in Article II, Section III of the U.S. Constitution:

He* 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;

(*That “He” being referred to there is the President of the United States.)

President Ronald Reagan during his second State of the Union Address. Seated behind him are (left to right) Vice President George H.W. Bush and Speaker of the House Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill.

That’s it. That’s all the Constitution says about the address. It was the 18th century version of a scrum meeting — a presidential report on the country, the status of which everyone in Congress already knows. One can argue that back in those horse-and-buggy days, such an address was needed to further disseminate information and to issue public recommendations to Congress  since TV, Internet, and Radio didn’t exist then. Even so, that report didn’t at all need to be an address. After the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams both of whom addressed joint sessions of Congress for their Sate of the Union addresses, third-President Thomas Jefferson didn’t even bother with an actual address but instead sent a written statement, which, if one were to consider the purpose of the State of the Union message, was probably the better idea. It was in written form that the address was given up until Woodrow Wilson — who wasn’t one to leave an open mic unattended — chose to address a joint session of Congress. From there, it was delivered in front of a joint session in some years and submitted in writing other years up until President Ronald Reagan began the more contemporary tradition of delivering the speech yearly at prime time so all the television viewers out there could see his former movie actor visage.

Since then and until President Trump, the Speaker has always extended an invitation to the President to address Congress. Whatever you want to call it — a State of the Union or a Presidential Address to a Joint Session of Congress — it’s still just one big pile of ridiculous, scripted, Washingtonian bullshit. But new traditions, even bullshit ones, have their place and their history.

The First State of the Union

It’s seldom true that things were better in the old days than they are now, but in the case of the State of the Union report, it seemed a little more meaty and useful when President Washington delivered his than the ones delivered nowadays. Unlike today’s President, Washington was a beloved figure in America who had enormous political capital and a solid power base. At least he did until later in his administration when a lot of that good will began to erode as political partisanship took over. The media at the time were just as bad if not worse than it is today but few dared criticize Washington too venomously for fear of alienating their readers many of whom thought he was a great guy. Whereas in the present, there are a number of news sources whose trustworthiness and fidelity to proper reporting are generally accepted (and don’t try to claim otherwise), back in the day, most papers were gossip rags that would print anything salacious enough to grab a few extra readers.

From the beginning, the State of the Union was a highly polished and structured address. Washington throughout his life was always careful with his words and deliberate in his actions. So it’s no surprise that his address to Congress was a very political and deliberate speech. It was also one he knew would be scrutinized by a nervous population who were still getting used to the whole United States of America idea along with the scary notion of a strong Federal government with the power to raise an army and levy taxes.

The first page of the first State of the Union Address given by President George Washington. (National Archives)

Washington delivered his first State of the Union Address on January 8, 1790. As these speeches go, it was short and highly congratulatory, not at all like the marathon lectures of today. Like most of his speeches, he chose his words carefully in his first address to Congress and even though he was very convivial, even going so far as to praise Congress, he didn’t shy away from some of the more controversial topics of the day, namely establishing public credit, repaying public debt, and raising a national army. That last point he argued was to not only deal with incursions by Indians in the western frontier, but to give his administration some muscle when dealing with foreign affairs and in general to ensure peace. Remember these were the days before public soldier worship was the norm and armies were highly untrusted. He spoke of North Carolina becoming a state, America’s rising credit and the prestige the new country was gaining around the world. Other items he touched on in that first State of the Union: he asked Congress to come up with rules of naturalization of foreign immigrants; he asked for “uniformity in currency, weights, and measures”; he asked Congress to promote agriculture, commerce, and manufacturies and to promote post offices and postal roads; he expressed his feeling that the government needed to build confidence in the government by the people by teaching people their rights and “to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority”. He sprinkled the speech with a fair amount of praise for Congress and the government.

In the end that first speech was well-received and drew positive reviews in newspapers around the country.

The Second State of the Union

The tone of the State of the Union didn’t change much in the 11 months between the first and second addressed. Washington remained mostly celebratory and positive in his tone except when he discussed issues on the frontier with Native American Indians who were clashing with settlers. But overall, his second State of the Union seemed a continuation of his first. The speech was shorter than the first but still on point in promoting the new government.

In the speech Washington first congratulates Congress and praises the country again as he had in his previous message, extolling the virtues of the growing republic and its improving economic health. Kentucky was mentioned as it continued to move toward statehood. A part of Virginia back then, Kentucky previously had received permission to seek statehood under the Articles of Confederation when that system was the law of the land. But before the measure could be voted on in the Confederation Congress in the summer of 1788, New Hampshire had ratified the U.S. Constitution becoming the ninth state to do so, which effectively put the Articles of Confederation out of business and as a result put statehood for Kentucky on the governmental back-burner for the time being. So the fact that Kentucky’s long wait for statehood was coming to an end was indeed a situation worth mentioning in the State of the Union. (Kentucky eventually became a state in 1792.)

Washington then mentions the problems Indian relations on the frontier before warning about potential war in Europe that could affect American trade. Together, these issues segued into Washington’s desire for Congress to put more efforts into the defense of the country and to expand the military and navy, if for any reason than to have leverage should diplomatic situations arise.

Congress had made several strides toward establishing a Federal court system, which Washington praised, before then repeating his desire for Congress to establish a system of weights and measures, raise a stronger militia, and to establish more post offices and postal roads. In all, he was discussing domestic nation building.

The timing of Washington’s second State of the Union is important because over the next year, the President would embark on a tour of the southern states, using his popularity to further solidify the ideas set down in the Constitution, and to actually meet the people in that part of the country who he was governing. The more he could help to use his own popularity and influence to help solidify the idea of a Federal government in the minds of U.S. citizens — his constituents — the better.

On a more controversial note, around the time Washington delivered this address, his Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was pushing for support of a tax on domestically produced distilled spirits, which would become the so-called “whiskey tax” and the reason for the “Whiskey Rebellion”. Here for many was the dark side of the new government, it was a tax that greatly affected those living in the western reaches of the country who distilled leftover grain to produce whiskey. This whiskey was often times used as currency on the frontier for lack of hard currency. This in effect made the whiskey tax an early form of income tax. Three years later Washington would end the rebellion by marching an army to western Pennsylvania to put down the insurrection, but it was in these early days that the seeds of whiskey discontent were sewn.

Printed below is a copy of President George Washington’s second State of the Union address, which was given during a joint session of Congress in New York City on December 8, 1790. This copy was taken from The American Presidency Project, which is an excellent online source for presidential public documents that is hosted at the University of California Santa Barbara. Please give them a click and have a look around.


Here is the text of U.S. President George Washington’s second State of the Union Address:

Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives:

In meeting you again I feel much satisfaction in being able to repeat my congratulations on the favorable prospects which continue to distinguish our public affairs. The abundant fruits of another year have blessed our country with plenty and with the means of a flourishing commerce.

The progress of public credit is witnessed by a considerable rise of American stock abroad as well as at home, and the revenues allotted for this and other national purposes have been productive beyond the calculations by which they were regulated. This latter circumstance is the more pleasing, as it is not only a proof of the fertility of our resources, but as it assures us of a further increase of the national respectability and credit, and, let me add, as it bears an honorable testimony to the patriotism and integrity of the mercantile and marine part of our citizens. The punctuality of the former in discharging their engagements has been exemplary.

In conformity to the powers vested in me by acts of the last session, a loan of 3,000,000 florins, toward which some provisional measures had previously taken place, has been completed in Holland. As well the celerity with which it has been filled as the nature of the terms (considering the more than ordinary demand for borrowing created by the situation of Europe) give a reasonable hope that the further execution of those powers may proceed with advantage and success. The Secretary of the Treasury has my directions to communicate such further particulars as may be requisite for more precise information.

Since your last sessions I have received communications by which it appears that the district of Kentucky, at present a part of Virginia, has concurred in certain propositions contained in a law of that State, in consequence of which the district is to become a distinct member of the Union, in case the requisite sanction of Congress be added. For this sanction application is now made. I shall cause the papers on this very important [see APP Note] transaction to be laid before you.

The liberality and harmony with which it has been conducted will be found to do great honor to both the parties, and the sentiments of warm attachment to the Union and its present Government expressed by our fellow citizens of Kentucky can not fail to add an affectionate concern for their particular welfare to the great national impressions under which you will decide on the case submitted to you.

It has been heretofore known to Congress that frequent incursions [see APP Note] have been made on our frontier settlements by certain banditti of Indians from the northwest side of the Ohio. These, with some of the tribes dwelling on and near the Wabash, have of late been particularly active in their depredations, and being emboldened by the impunity of their crimes and aided by such parts of the neighboring tribes as could be seduced to join in their hostilities or afford them a retreat for their prisoners and plunder, they have, instead of listening to the humane invitations and overtures made on the part of the United States, renewed their violences with fresh alacrity and greater effect. The lives of a number of valuable citizens have thus been sacrificed, and some of them under circumstances peculiarly shocking, whilst others have been carried into a deplorable captivity.

These aggravated provocations rendered it essential to the safety of the Western settlements that the aggressors should be made sensible that the Government of the Union is not less capable of punishing their crimes than it is disposed to respect their rights and reward their attachments. As this object could not be effected by defensive measures, it became necessary to put in force the act which empowers the President to call out the militia for the protection of the frontiers, and I have accordingly authorized an expedition in which the regular troops in that quarter are combined with such drafts of militia as were deemed sufficient. The event of the measure is yet unknown to me. The Secretary of War is directed to lay before you a statement of the information on which it is founded, as well as an estimate of the expense with which it will be attended.

The disturbed situation of Europe, and particularly the critical posture of the great maritime powers, whilst it ought to make us the more thankful for the general peace and security enjoyed by the United States, reminds us at the same time of the circumspection with which it becomes us to preserve these blessings. It requires also that we should not overlook the tendency of a war, and even of preparations for a war, among the nations most concerned in active commerce with this country to abridge the means, and thereby at least enhance the price, of transporting its valuable productions to their markets. I recommend it to your serious reflections how far and in what mode it may be expedient to guard against embarrassments from these contingencies by such encouragements to our own navigation as will render our commerce and agriculture less dependent on foreign bottoms, which may fail us in the very moments most interesting to both of these great objects. Our fisheries and the transportation of our own produce offer us abundant means for guarding ourselves against this evil.

Your attention seems to be not less due to that particular branch of our trade which belongs to the Mediterranean. So many circumstances unite in rendering the present state of it distressful to us that you will not think any deliberations misemployed which may lead to its relief and protection.

The laws you have already passed for the establishment of a judiciary system have opened the doors of justice to all descriptions of persons. You will consider in your wisdom whether improvements in that system may yet be made, and particularly whether an uniform process of execution on sentences issuing from the Federal courts be not desirable through all the States.

The patronage of our commerce, of our merchants and sea men, has called for the appointment of consuls in foreign countries. It seems expedient to regulate by law the exercise of that jurisdiction and those functions which are permitted them, either by express convention or by a friendly indulgence, in the places of their residence. The consular convention, too, with His Most Christian Majesty has stipulated in certain cases the aid of the national authority to his consuls established here. Some legislative provision is requisite to carry these stipulations into full effect.

The establishment of the militia, of a mint, of standards of weights and measures, of the post office and post roads are subjects which I presume you will resume of course, and which are abundantly urged by their own importance.

Gentlemen of the House of Representatives:

The sufficiency of the revenues you have established for the objects to which they are appropriated leaves no doubt that the residuary provisions will be commensurate to the other objects for which the public faith stands now pledged. Allow me, moreover, to hope that it will be a favorite policy with you, not merely to secure a payment of the interest of the debt funded, but as far and as fast as the growing resources of the country will permit to exonerate it of the principal itself. The appropriation you have made of the Western land explains your dispositions on this subject, and I am persuaded that the sooner that valuable fund can be made to contribute, along with the other means, to the actual reduction of the public debt the more salutary will the measure be to every public interest, as well as the more satisfactory to our constituents.

Gentlemen of the Senate and House of Representatives:

in pursuing the various and weighty business of the present session I indulge the fullest persuasion that your consultation will be equally marked with wisdom and animated by the love of your country. In whatever belongs to my duty you shall have all the cooperation which an undiminished zeal for its welfare can inspire. It will be happy for us both, and our best reward, if, by a successful administration of our respective trusts, we can make the established Government more and more instrumental in promoting the good of our fellow citizens, and more and more the object of their attachment and confidence.