What Is A SOTU? Trump's Speech Has A Long History

ByMonica Busch
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On Tuesday, Jan. 30, President Donald Trump will address a joint session of Congress, delivering what is known as a SOTU — the State of the Union address. The occasion will mark Trump's first SOTU as President of the United States.

For most young people in the United States, the SOTU address has been a regular event, popping up most Januaries with cool predictability. In the weeks leading up to the speech, pundits and commentators hype up what will or will not be covered, and the opposing party prepares counterpoints for its rebuttal, which is scheduled to take place when the president is finished. But, while the SOTU has become a theatrical mainstay in the United States, that wasn't always the case.

The SOTU has been around since George Washington, and the sitting American president is legally required to issue some type of address to Congress, at least periodically, by order of the Constitution. But, while it has been around since the first SOTU was delivered in New York City in 1790, the SOTU has manifested in several very different forms over the course of history.

Washington's first SOTU was only 1,089 words — the shortest SOTU on record. The United States was still a burgeoning young country working to fully establish itself, and so Washington's address focused on issues like infrastructure and celebrating North Carolina officially joining the Union.

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But while Washington was a president who set a lot of precedents, the tradition of issuing the SOTU in person didn't stick for very long. After Thomas Jefferson decided that delivering a big speech sounded too much like something a monarch would do, sending off a written address, to be read out-loud by a clerk, became the norm. This lasted more than 100 years.

These speeches were more focused the nitty-gritty details of governance than they were focused on political bravado and public relations. Woodrow Wilson broke this tradition in 1913, when he delivered his SOTU in person to a joint session of Congress, the first president to read his SOTU out loud since John Adams.

Until 1946, the SOTU wasn't even called the SOTU. It was called the "Annual Message." After a soft transitional period, it was officially sanctioned as the State of the Union Address in 1947. That year, delivered by Henry Truman, was also the first year that the SOTU — in any of its forms — was televised.

However, while the SOTU was officially being both delivered by the president and read out-loud, it was still scheduled to take place during the day for nearly another twenty years. It wasn't until Lyndon B. Johnson that the SOTU was scheduled to be delivered in the evening and broadcasted on television so that average Americans were likely to be at home and able to view it.

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Since delivering the SOTU in person has become the norm, the speech itself has generally decreased in length. According to the History, Art, and Archives of the United States House of Representatives, in the 19th century, the SOTUS addressed averaged about 10,000 words. By the end of the 20th century, the average was only 5,000 words. Since 1993, SOTUS addresses have last about an hour, give or take about ten minutes from year to year.

Technically, Tuesday, Jan. 30 will mark Trump's first SOTUS, though he did give an address to a joint session of Congress shortly after his inauguration in 2017. But, since tradition dictates that a president wait until he or she has served a full calendar year in office before delivering a SOTU, that joint address didn't fit the bill. Choosing to give an unofficial address after being recently inaugurated, however, is also the norm.