The First-Ever State of the Union Reveals Some Things Never Change

George Washington’s national priorities more than 200 years ago are not so different from President Obama’s expected remarks.

Snow covers the statue of George Washington on Wall Street on March 8, 2012 in New York City.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Jan. 8, 2014, 7:31 a.m.

The State of the Uni­on ad­dress is still a few weeks away, but its biggest talk­ing points have already been iden­ti­fied: in­come in­equal­ity, health care, and re­forms to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

The con­tents of the rest of the speech, however, should come as no sur­prise. Na­tion­al se­cur­ity, edu­ca­tion, im­mig­ra­tion, and the eco­nomy have be­come main­stays in the an­nu­al ad­dress, a tra­di­tion that dates back more than 200 years. In this way, Pres­id­ent Obama’s forth­com­ing le­gis­lat­ive agenda echoes the first-ever State of the Uni­on ad­dress, de­livered by George Wash­ing­ton on this day in 1790 at Fed­er­al Hall in New York City.

Obama’s an­nu­al ad­dresses usu­ally be­gin with praise of pro­gress, a struc­ture that dates back to Wash­ing­ton:

I em­brace with great sat­is­fac­tion the op­por­tun­ity which now presents it­self of con­grat­u­lat­ing you on the present fa­vor­able pro­spects of our pub­lic af­fairs. The re­cent ac­ces­sion of the im­port­ant state of North Car­o­lina to the Con­sti­tu­tion of the United States (of which of­fi­cial in­form­a­tion has been re­ceived), 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 also offered some words of en­cour­age­ment be­fore diving in­to na­tion­al pri­or­it­ies, something Obama will surely rep­lic­ate:

Still fur­ther to real­ize their ex­pect­a­tions and to se­cure the bless­ings which a gra­cious Provid­ence has placed with­in our reach will in the course of the present im­port­ant ses­sion call for the cool and de­lib­er­ate ex­er­tion of your pat­ri­ot­ism, firm­ness, and wis­dom.

Now, time for busi­ness. Na­tion­al se­cur­ity was a top pri­or­ity for Wash­ing­ton, too:

Among the many in­ter­est­ing ob­jects which will en­gage your at­ten­tion that of provid­ing for the com­mon de­fense will mer­it par­tic­u­lar re­gard. To be pre­pared for war is one of the most ef­fec­tu­al means of pre­serving peace.

So was the de­fense budget:

In the ar­range­ments which may be made re­spect­ing it it will be of im­port­ance to con­cili­ate the com­fort­able sup­port of the of­ficers and sol­diers with a due re­gard to eco­nomy.

Like Obama, Wash­ing­ton was also fo­cused on im­mig­ra­tion:

Vari­ous con­sid­er­a­tions also render it ex­pedi­ent that the terms on which for­eign­ers may be ad­mit­ted to the rights of cit­izens should be speedily as­cer­tained by a uni­form rule of nat­ur­al­iz­a­tion.

And Amer­ic­an in­nov­a­tion:

The ad­vance­ment of ag­ri­cul­ture, com­merce, and man­u­fac­tures by all prop­er means will not, I trust, need re­com­mend­a­tion; but I can not for­bear in­tim­at­ing to you the ex­pedi­ency of giv­ing ef­fec­tu­al en­cour­age­ment as well to the in­tro­duc­tion of new and use­ful in­ven­tions from abroad as to the ex­er­tions of skill and geni­us in pro­du­cing them at home, and of fa­cil­it­at­ing the in­ter­course between the dis­tant parts of our coun­try by a due at­ten­tion to the post-of­fice and post-roads.

And edu­ca­tion, es­pe­cially sci­ence:

Nor am I less per­suaded that you will agree with me in opin­ion that 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

There is one item, however, on Wash­ing­ton’s le­gis­lat­ive agenda for 1790 that Obama doesn’t have to worry about:

Uni­form­ity in the cur­rency, weights, and meas­ures of the United States is an ob­ject of great im­port­ance, and will, I am per­suaded, be duly at­ten­ded to.

Un­for­tu­nately for Wash­ing­ton, it would take about 70 more years to achieve this “ob­ject of great im­port­ance.”

Wash­ing­ton de­livered the ad­dress in per­son be­fore a joint ses­sion of Con­gress. In 1801, Thomas Jef­fer­son dis­con­tin­ued the prac­tice, opt­ing in­stead to de­liv­er it by let­ter. Woo­drow Wilson re­vived the tra­di­tion in 1913, and today it has be­come a large pub­lic and polit­ic­al af­fair, com­plete with guests to il­lus­trate the sit­ting pres­id­ent’s spe­cif­ic na­tion­al pri­or­it­ies.

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