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.’

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.”). And you can see it all from the fact that there is one too many a Social Security Disability lawyer plying his trade.