The annual State of the Union speech isn't just stagecraft: the message is mandated by the U.S. Constitution (trivia alert: Article II, Section 3). It's intended to give Congress a status update on the country and make recommendations where needed, but the tradition has evolved over time.
The history of the address is rich, even if the individual speeches sometimes seem fleeting and forgettable.
Who was the first person to deliver this presidential memo? (George Washington.)
Has every president delivered one? (No. William Henry Harrison and James Garfield never did. Each died prematurely, from illness and assassination, respectively.)
Are they always presented orally? (Nope. For over a century, a written document was submitted to Congress.)
Here are some of the top moments in State of the Union history.
George W. Bush, 2002
"States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil."
Significance: In the first State of the Union speech delivered after the 9/11 attacks, Bush coined the phrase "axis of evil," a reference to the three regimes he singled out as the world's most dangerous: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Video / Transcript
William J. Clinton, 1996
"The era of big government is over."
Significance: As much as anything else, the State of the Union speeches are political tools. In a re-election year, with a failed health care proposal and the disastrous 1994 election behind him, Clinton's rhetoric crept towards the middle in an attempt to signal he was a different kind of Democrat. Video / Transcript
Gerald R. Ford, 1975
"The State of the Union is not good."
Significance: The president gave this downbeat address months after taking over for Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned. Ford's time in office was brief: when the next election came around in 1976, voters choose a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. Video / Transcript
Richard M. Nixon, 1974
"One year of Watergate is enough."
Significance: Toward the end of Nixon's final State of the Union address, he added a personal note, calling for an end to the Watergate investigations. Less than a year later, Nixon resigned as a result of the scandal. Video / Transcript
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964
"This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty."
Significance: Johnson focused on making a major dent in poverty while in office. On his watch, Congress passed legislation for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and Head Start. Video / Transcript
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941
"We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms."
Significance: Roosevelt gave what is now known as his Four Freedoms speech in 1941, hoping for a world where everyone had access to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. By the end of that year, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. Transcript
Abraham Lincoln, 1862
"In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free."
Significance: Following both his announcement of the Emancipation Proclaimation and the battle at Antietam, the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War, Lincoln delivered a message in written form that is best remembered for its lofty final paragraph. Written Letter / Transcript
James K. Polk, 1848
"The explorations [found] that the supply is very large and that gold is found."
Significance: In his final address, Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in California — until then a subject of wild rumors. The president's words are credited with kicking off the Gold Rush. Text
James Monroe, 1823
"The American continents...are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers."
Significance: Monroe warned European powers from interfering or colonizing other areas in the Western Hemisphere. This caution would later be referred to as the Monroe Doctrine. Text
George Washington, 1790
"To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."
Significance: Washington gave his first address nine months after taking office, following the constitutional requirement that the president address Congress "from time to time." Text