State of the Union

[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union....

Article II, Section 3

As Chief Justice John Marshall pointed out in Marbury v. Madison (1803), much of the power of the executive is, in its nature, discretionary. Not so with the President's obligation to provide Congress with a report on the state of the Union. In his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Justice Joseph Story observed that because the President has more information of the complex workings of the government, "[t]here is great wisdom, therefore, in not merely allowing, but in requiring, the president to lay before congress all facts and information, which may assist their deliberations; and in enabling him at once to point out the evil, and to suggest the remedy." Only the President—with his unique knowledge of military operations, foreign affairs, and the day-to-day execution of the laws, as well as being the only national representative of the whole people—can give a comprehensive assessment of the overall state of the nation and its relations with the world.

The Framers fastened this duty upon the President as a means of transparency and accountability. Justice Story noted, "He is thus justly made responsible, not merely for a due administration of the existing systems, but for due diligence and examination into the means of improving them." Other constitutionally defined communications, such as the President's veto message to Congress, his recommendation of measures to Congress, and the Senate's advice and consent of presidential nominations, represent James Madison's examples of the "partial agency" (The Federalist No. 47) of one department in the workings of another department. But like the Oath of Office Clause, the State of the Union Clause requires the President to respect the legislative role of the Congress at the same time that it accounts for executive discretion in the fulfillment of the duty.

Unlike the British model of a "speech from the throne" to Parliament, which represents the sovereign "king in parliament" basis of the British constitution, the American version speaks to the separation of powers and the ultimate accountability of each branch of government to the sovereign people. Thus, the State of the Union Clause respects and upholds the separation of powers doctrine just as it acknowledges the nature of presidential unity and decisiveness, key "ingredients which constitute energy in the executive," as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 70.

The provenance of the clause derived from the example of early state constitutions, as well as Hamilton's unadopted draft language:

The President at the beginning of every meeting of the Legislature as soon as they shall be ready to proceed to business, shall convene them together at the place where the Senate shall sit, and shall communicate to them all such matters as may be necessary for their information, or as may require their consideration.

George Washington gave the first "Annual Message" in the Senate chamber in January 1790, after the Congress had met for the first time in 1789 but two months before its second session in March 1790. Subsequent messages came shortly after the convening of Congress, fulfilling the intended purpose of the Framers that the occasion was not for pomp but for practical content. Congress, for its part, does not need to respond, although it did so early in the Republic through a formal resolution of each House and, in more recent times, by a reply by a Member of the opposition party.

Historically, annual messages mostly focused on foreign relations, and introduced the reports and recommendations of department heads. It was not until the twentieth century, with the ease of communications and access to information, as well as the President's increased public presence and role as political party leader, that the State of the Union became less reporting and assessment and more policy advocacy and political persuasion. Although it is not a requirement, there was an expectation that the message would be delivered orally by the President (as was done by Washington and John Adams). Thomas Jefferson thought the practice too royal and refused to do so personally; he had clerks read it to Congress. Woodrow Wilson revived the oral tradition in 1913, a practice that has been followed by every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the advent of radio (first used by Calvin Coolidge in 1923) and television (first used by Harry S. Truman in 1947), the State of the Union address has become an important occasion for speaking directly to the American people.

Profile photo of Matthew Spalding
Matthew Spalding
Vice President, American Studies
Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
The Heritage Foundation