The State of the Union That Left 'WASHINGTON AMAZED'

In 1913, a president was able to wow Congress just by giving a speech.
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President Wilson delivers his remarks to a joint session of Congress in April 1913 (Library of Congress)

In the early afternoon of April 8, 1913, Woodrow Wilson took a trip down Pennsylvania Avenue. His destination? The U.S. Capitol, where he would deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. 

It was a brief journey that would be repeated by subsequent presidents every year, with varying proportions of enthusiasm and obligation—and with a few notable exceptions—for the next century. It would be conducted with such regularity that the State of the Union address ranks, at this point, among the most routinized of our political spectacles.

At the time, however, Wilson's speech was revolutionary. In that it was a speech at all. 

An in-person update is not required by the Constitution, which mandates simply that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." President Washington, in 1790, set the precedent for a yearly address; Adams, his fellow Federalist, continued the tradition. When it came time for Jefferson to deliver his own updates to Congress, however, the Democratic-Republican discontinued the practice—under the logic that an in-person address too closely resembled the British monarch's tradition of addressing each new session of Parliament with policy mandatesSince then ("then" being 1802), the State of the Union had been, in its way, Jeffersonian: Presidents delivered it not as a speech, but as a written document. 

Wilson changed all that—under the belief, in the words of one historian, that "active and visible presidential leadership was needed to the people and the Congress." In response to which the press, in the words of this non-historian, pretty much freaked out. Here, via Ben Smith and DocumentCloud, is an excerpt from a 1913 Washington Post preview of the speech: 

Here's another paragraph from the story: 

And another: 

As the story's headline summed things up: "WASHINGTON IS AMAZED." This was, to be clear, not ironic. It would likely mark both the first and the last time that a president could wow fellow politicians, and the press, simply by showing up.

And it would barely be that. 

Because once the address lost its aura of innovation—once, that is to say, Woodrow Wilson spent 28 minutes delivering his typewritten address to Congress—it shifted from "game-changer" to "just another speech." While "I like the idea of the president coming before Congress," James Mann, the Republican House leader, would say (and while the Congress in question, according to the Baltimore Sun, greeted the speech's conclusion "with hand-clapping and cheers"), interest groups and fellow politicians were quick to criticize the content of the address. Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, condemned the speech's silence on the vote. "We feel that President Wilson has fallen short of the greatest opportunity which has come to him or will ever come to him," she would say after the delivery, in an early instance of post-speech spin. 

Washington's erstwhile "amazement" at the speech would also give way, unsurprisingly, to partisanship. It was Mississippi Senator John Sharp William who may have played the role, in 1913, of the de facto deliverer of the State of the Union's oppositional response. His take on Wilson's precedent-setting spectacle?  That it was ''a cheap and tawdry imitation of the pomposities and cavalcadings of monarchial countries.''

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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