State of the Union

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

State of the Union

Article II, Section 3

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

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 (1833), 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—who posseses unique knowledge of military operations, foreign affairs, and the day-to-day execution of the laws and is 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 what James Madison called the “partial agency” (The Federalist No. 47) of one department in the workings of another department. But like the Presidential Oath of Office Clause (Article II, Section 1, Clause 8), the State of the Union Clause requires the president to respect the legislative role of Congress while retaining executive discretion in the fulfillment of his role in enforcing the laws.

Unlike the British model of a “speech from the throne” to Parliament, which represents the sovereignty of the “king in parliament” of the British constitution, the American version, at least as written in the Constitution, presumes the vitality of the separation of powers and the ultimate accountability of each branch of government to the sovereign people. The modern practice of the State of the Union address, however, seems to borrow elements from the British form of the “speech from the throne.”

The origins of the clause are in the early state constitutions, as well as Alexander 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, at the beginning of the second session of the First Congress. 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 president would deliver the message orally (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 every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has followed. 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.

Beginning with Lyndon Johnson, the presidents have delivered their addresses in the evening to obtain a wider television audience. Showmanship, partisanship, and pomp have increased in recent decades, raising the issue of whether it is appropriate for members of the Supreme Court to attend. Despite the intentions of the Framers, the State of the Union has evolved to something like the “speech from the throne” but with a signal difference. In England, the leader of governing party in Parliament writes the speech for the monarch, whereas in the United States, the president is the de facto national leader (regardless of party control by the legislature), and the State of the Union address now demonstrates how powerful an initiator of the legislative process the president has become.

Matthew Spalding

Associate Vice President and Dean of Educational Programs, Hillsdale College

Edward Corwin, The President: Office and Powers, 1787–1984 (5th ed., rev'd 1984)

Vasan Kesavan & J. Gregory Sidak, The Legislator-in-Chief, 44 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1 (2002)

Colleen J. Shogan & Thomas H. Neale, “The President’s State of the Union Address: Tradition, Function, and Policy Implications,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700, December 17, 2012

JOSEPH STORY, COMMENTARIES ON THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES (Constitutional Bicentennial Edition, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, N.C. 1987) (with introduction by Ronald D. Rotunda & John E. Nowak)