“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union,” stipulates Article Two of the Constitution, “and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Since 1790, every president has made an annual report to Congress, highlighting the challenges and opportunities facing the nation. Presidents from Jefferson to Taft dispatched lengthy written addresses to Congress; since Wilson, most have emulated Washington’s example, and delivered shorter remarks in person.
Using natural language processing algorithms followed by hand corrections, we have combed through these 224 State of the Union addresses and identified 16,408 mentions of 1,410 different places. Plotted on a map, the results reveal how American presidents have seen their nation and their world.
We invite you to explore these speeches. Click the arrow on the maps below and observe how the priorities and concerns of our presidents have evolved over time. Pause the map and click on any of the circles to see the passages from each speech that refer to the locations beneath the circles. Then scroll down below the maps and discover how our team of historians interprets what these maps show and what they conceal.
AFRICA: Despite America’s deep links to Western Africa, dating back to the slave trade, Africa and African nations are rarely mentioned. In the 19th Century, presidents reported on the U.S. Navy’s purposefully ineffective anti-slave trade patrols or the health of Liberia, the colony created by moderate anti-slavery politicians. For the last century, African place names almost always appear as a single instance of more sweeping policy initiatives—the fight against communism, the promotion of democratic reforms, or the war on terror. -Dael Norwood
CHINA: China’s mentions in the State of the Union follow the sine wave of American interest. Presidents did not begin addressing China regularly until the 1830s. Official interest grew out of a concern that American access to China’s markets was being threatened by other aggressive Western powers, chiefly the British Empire. Subsequent American administrations consistently sought to cultivate trade, and a positive anti-colonial relationship with China, as part of Great Power politics. It became increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction of friendly “open door” relations in the late 19th century, though, as the U.S. passed laws banning Chinese immigration. In the 20th century, American concerns shifted from economic ties to national security, as the victory of the Communists over the KMT put China on the opposite side of the Cold War divide. After relations began to thaw after Nixon’s 1972 visit, and economic integration increased, China once again became a frequent topic in presidential addresses—though now the relationship is described more ambiguously, as a great power rivalry and a close economic partnership. -Dael Norwood
WEST COAST: Americans had wanted to add the Pacific Coast to their empire since the early years of the republic. But before the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, that interest focused on the Oregon Country. American traders like New York’s John Jacob Astor used exploitative partnerships with native Pacific Northwest hunters to build a profitable global fur trade with China and Europe. Competition with British firms caused diplomatic friction, but early American politicians nonetheless dreamed of turning this foothold into a new base for American control of the Pacific Ocean. The Gold Rush accelerated these plans for California, and then Oregon and Washington. -Dael Norwood
EMPIRE: In the 1890s, the United States expanded its empire overseas. The search for new markets, competition with European powers, missionary zeal, faith in American progress, and ability to civilize others all combined with a deep anxiety about the “closing” of the American frontier to produce the push for expansion. War with Spain in 1898 resulted in the acquisition of the Philippines, which gained its independence in 1936, and Guam and Puerto Rico, which both remain U.S. territories today. -Gretchen Heefner
FDR: President Roosevelt’s priority during the Great Depression was to solve the country’s economic crisis. That is why the world seems to have vanished from his State of the Union addresses in the 1930s. But FDR was no isolationist; he spoke frequently about the world and looming threats to peace. Instead of citing specific countries and regions, FDR used general terms and ideas in order to ease Americans—largely wary of global interactions—back onto the world stage. -Gretchen Heefner
MIDDLE EAST: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Americans were introduced to a new set of challenges, making the Mideast a fixture of presidential addresses. The oil shocks of the 1970s took their toll on the American economy. But more immediate were the effects of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Beginning in November 1979, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. This was the first time most Americans learned about the forces of radical Islam; it would not be the last. Foreshadowing comments of later presidents, Carter declared the hostage crisis a form of “terrorism” that “violates the moral and the legal standards of a civilized world.” -Gretchen Heefner
For more on this topic, see “The Language of the State of the Union,” by Benjamin Schmidt and Mitch Fraas.