What is the State of the Union Address? - Definition & Purpose

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  • 0:03 So, How Is the Union?
  • 0:53 Early History
  • 2:16 Modern History
  • 3:19 Memorable Addresses
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson will teach you about the State of the Union Address. You will learn what it is, why it occurs, when it happens, who attends, and how it has changed throughout history.

So, How Is the Union?

Have you ever seen a president give a State of the Union Address? Maybe you have watched in school before or seen highlights on the news. Though sometimes confusing, the speech plays an important role in communication between the executive and legislative branches of our government. While they can be lengthy, they are purposeful. Actually, in his final State of the Union Address given in January 2016, President Barack Obama said, to laughter and applause, ''And for this final one, I'm going to try to make it a little shorter.''

The State of the Union Address is a speech that's delivered annually by the president to the U.S. Congress. Exceptions to various parts of this definition have occurred as you're about to learn.

Why is it given? What is its purpose? This lesson goes over the law, history, and purpose of the State of the Union.

Early History

Believe it or not, U.S. law makes the State of the Union address mandatory. Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution states 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.''

Yet the phrase ''time to time'' is a bit vague. Should that be every month? Every four years? Well, George Washington, our nation's first president, established a precedent. With rare exception, the State of the Union address has been given once a year since 1790. However, this is not a legal requirement, only a precedent.

And even though Washington gave a speech, what's interesting to note is that this address need not be a speech. From 1790-1800, the address was a speech. Between 1801 and 1912, the State of the Union was a lengthy written report that was sent to a new session of Congress. Between 1913 and 1933, some presidents gave a speech, others gave written reports, and some did one or the other throughout their presidency. Since 1913, however, the purpose of the speech (or report) has been to inform the U.S. Congress of the president's legislative agenda for the next year. The State of the Union message also outlines the executive branch's view of the state of the union.

Modern History

It's really only since 1933 that the speech, as opposed to a written report, has become standard. That being said, a few exceptions have occurred since 1933, where the president has only given a written message to Congress instead of delivering a speech via public radio and/or television to the entire nation instead.

While nowadays the speech is given in January, prior to 1934 it was actually given in December, with the opening of Congress. During the speech, some members of the political elite are always absent. But why would a member of Congress not be present?

During the State of the Union Address, the nation's entire government is sitting in one room listening to the president. If some catastrophe were to occur, there would be no senior member left to take charge of the country. Thus, at least one member of the president's cabinet and two members of each house of Congress from each party, are absent. They are placed in a secure location away from the Capitol to ensure as smooth a transition of power as possible in the event of an emergency.

Memorable Addresses

There have been some notable and memorable State of the Union Addresses during the history of the United States:

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