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Jefferson Was Right: The SOTU Address Should Be Written, Not Spoken – Ryan McMaken

The absurdity of those State of the Union Speeches. Like many political traditions accepted as unchangeable or timeless by Americans, the State of the Union Speech is neither required nor wise. First of all, the constitution merely states that the president “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.” It doesn’t say anything about this information being conveyed in a speech. Naturally, Washington gave these addresses as speeches because he liked that sort of thing, and Adams used speeches because he was obsessed with the pomp of government power. 

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, realized that no such speech was necessary. Instead, he opted for written statements. His first “annual address,” as it was called back then, was delivered to the Congress via a clerk.  In the letter below, Jefferson explains that a written letter is better because it is more respectful of everyone’s time, and it allows for proper reflection before a response is made:

Letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives Regarding the President’s Annual Message

December 08, 1801


SIR: The circumstances under which we find ourselves at this place rendering inconvenient the mode heretofore practiced of making by personal address the first communications between the legislative and executive branches, I have adopted that by message, as used on all subsequent occasions through the session. In doing this I have had principal regard to the convenience of the Legislature, to the economy of their time, to their relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them, and to the benefits thence resulting to the public affairs. Trusting that a procedure rounded in these motives will meet their approbation, I beg leave through you, sir, to communicate the inclosed message, with the documents accompanying it, to the honorable the Senate, and pray you to accept for yourself and them the homage of my high respect and consideration.


We know from other sources that Jefferson thought it was dangerous for the president to provide a “big speech” to Congress because it made it him look like a monarch. This is a reasonable concern since it was a tradition in the monarchies of Europe for the reigning monarchs to deliver a “speech from the throne” in which the monarch would preside over parliament and deliver a speech surrounded by much ceremony. Having such a speech might also send the message that the president somehow calls the House and Senate into session, as many monarchs did with their parliaments. The US president does no such thing, however, and he does not preside over either the House or the Senate. He is president of the executive branch only. He is commander-in-chief of only the armed forces. 

Unfortunately, the lack of quasi-religious rites promoted by Jefferson didn’t catch on.  It is now more apparent than ever that far too many Americans delight in having an earthly king to either lionize or despise, and to which to direct some sort of emotional connection. Lacking the self-disciple or stamina to provide his own life with meaning or gravitas, this sort of American needs to watch empty ceremonies of pageantry with politicians which make the viewer— watching from home in his sweat socks and short pants—feel as if he is part of something important.  

Fortunately, however, the internet has made it much easier to just read the transcripts of a president’s vapid speeches as soon as they are delivered. Those who have better things to do, if they are interested, can simply skim the speech text in minutes, rather than wasting more than an hour of valuable time that could be spent raising children or tending to one’s community. 

Of course, if one insists on watching the speech, the best one can hope for—as recently explained by Jim Bovard—is a refreshing lack of decorum.