SOTU

Every year (more or less — there are plenty of exceptions), the President of the United States gives a little speech to Congress (and anyone else who might be listening or watching). They call it the “State of the Union”.

And yes, the State of the Union addresses are usually pretty boring. OK, if you’ve missed all of the administration’s rhetoric since the last one, it may be a good chance to catch up. Otherwise, they’re generally like ‘hey there, we’ve got some serious problems but we’re in this together and things are either starting to look better, or going to start to look better real soon.’

Last year when I was listening to the State of the Union address I was with my father who was laid out flat on his back with an injury, that according to the doctors, was going to be take at least 24 months before he would be able to get back to work. He was devastated as was I. I remember looking up online about how to apply for social security disability benefits. Obviously my father was a perfect candidate, or so we thought. He seemed to meet all the requirements for social security disability benefits, but his application was rejected. I’m still not sure whether I filed it improperly or we didn’t make a strong enough case. Well to make a long tedious story shorter, I did another online search, this time for a Social Security Disability lawyer who could help guide my father through the appeals hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. Well it worked out. His application was finally approved after his social security disability lawyer filed additional papers and prepped my father for his day in court. My father, who is now in rehab and can actually sit upright for about three hours a day without any pain, and I listened to this year’s State of the Union address in a slightly better state of spirits. My father is ever so slowly improving and he is receiving some monies that have been very helpful. Perhaps at next year’s State of the Union address he will be totally recovered and working again.

It wasn’t always that way. George Washington delivered the first State of the Union, though it was written instead of spoken, and it was called the “Speech of the President of the United States to Both Houses of Congress”.

This document is full of congratulations on the progress that young America was making. He specifically names “the rising credit and respectability of our country, the general and increasing good will toward the government of the Union, and the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed are circumstances auspicious in an eminent degree to our national prosperity.”

Washington does address two specific issues of concern: the military, and education.

Washington writes: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” One might expect this from a General, especially during an especially bloody age of Revolution. However, he also stresses the importance of education, asserting “…there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature.  Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

George Washington, in his October 1791 address, dwells on the current ‘Indian’ problems at length. His words portray a man of peace and reason who is being forced to use violent means; history tells us a different story, and provides us with many other examples of leaders equally ‘reluctant’ to launch a war, extermination, or period of oppression. We’re also now disposed to regard with some amusement his quick subject change to “laying certain duties on distilled spirits”.

Among international concerns (the French Revolution was going strong at that point) and resultant domestic worries (“foreign agents” recruiting Indian tribes to attack America?), John Adams’ first SotU makes a strikingly pertinent point concerning loans and taxation:  “The consequences arising from the continual accumulation of public debts in other countries ought to admonish us to be careful to prevent their growth in our own. The national defense must be provided for as well as the support of Government; but both should be accomplished as much as possible by immediate taxes, and as little as possible by loans.”

In contrast to the first two, Thomas Jefferson’s first address was eloquent — almost to the point of purple prose. In fact, his first SotU was about as long as all of its predecessors put together. It was also written, rather than read in person — possibly because of a lisp, and his preference for privacy, or possibly because he considered a direct address to be too much like England’s royal “Speech from the Throne”.

He touched upon issues that still move us today: immigration reform, free markets, excessive military (“For the surplus no particular use can be pointed out. For defense against invasion their number is as nothing, nor is it conceived needful or safe that a standing army should be kept up in time of peace for that purpose.”), and bloated government (“we may well doubt whether our organization is not too complicated, too expensive; whether offices and officers have not been multiplied unnecessarily and sometimes injuriously to the service they were meant to promote.”).