Read Nathan's newest piece for his blog, Historically Speaking. You can read the original Raab Collection article here.
The Drama Fades, and the Speech Endures
The State of the Union speech is a grand and often ridiculous media event. Television guarantees the spectacle; 24-hour news and a non-stop political cycle shine a bright light on the stage: Standing ovations, choreographed invitations, the careful stagecraft, special interest nods, and personal drama. This morning, pundits are debating whether President Obama was too moderate, too far to the left, too aggressive, or too meek. Did Marco Rubio’s drink of water eclipse his speech? Do we really need two rebuttals? With so much pageantry and nonsense, should we care about these speeches?
But look at past addresses and you can’t escape the obvious: when the spectacle passes, the speeches remain. These speeches matter. They can change the direction of the nation.
Seeing the original documents is great perspective.
Look back to December 2, 1823, when President James Monroe sent his message to Congress, his State of the Union, warning powers not to interfere in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 200 years later, this policy position, hidden in the context of a larger address and dealing with many issues of the day, we still call today the Monroe Doctrine. “The citizens of the United States cherish sentiments the most friendly in favor of the liberty and happiness of their fellow-men on that side of the Atlantic.” Monroe meant for the doctrine to be a warning to those European powers that might encroach on the Western Hemisphere, and they got, and still get, the message.
A snippet from a page from James Monroe's State of the Union, from the Records of the United States Senate; National Archives
Consider James Knox Polk, who just months after the end of the Mexican War, spoke of California in his 1848 State of the Union Message: “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.” So he sparked the 1849 Gold Rush, and it was no accident. He intended to flood California with Americans to create a reality on the ground to cement U.S. possession.
A souvenir quote from Polk's State of the Union, from The Raab Collection; now in a significant private collection
Or Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address to Congress in 1941, known as his Four Freedoms speech, in which he painted a picture of a country that inspired Norman Rockwell and defined a generation’s self definition. Soon his freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear – became the goals Americans fought for in World War II.
A draft page of FDR's Four Freedoms State of the Union, from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library
Perhaps the most poignant example of the importance in retrospect that the State of the Union can have is, unexpectedly, the 1860 message by President James Buchanan. In it, he negated the argument for the Confederacy, and in a sense warned the South that secession would not be accepted, even by a pro-southern Democrat like himself. He took the position that the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, being a transient event, was not itself a cause for disunion. He wrote: “In order to justify a resort to revolutionary resistance, the Federal Government must be guilty of ‘a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise’ of powers not granted by the Constitution.”
Just two years later, in his written State of the Union message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln would remark, “The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.” This statement, reminiscent of the Gettysburg Address, is, like the Address, both supremely evocative of its moment and timeless.
The final page from Abraham Lincoln's 1862 State of the Union, from the National Archives; Legislative Archives
Incidentally, for those keeping score, Woodrow Wilson was not the first person to give his State of the Union address in person, before Congress, as a speech. Both George Washington and John Adams did. Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice, taken up again by Wilson more than a century later.
Thomas Jefferson explains his intent to write and not speak his State of the Union address; From the National Archives; Legislative Archives