- A State of the Union address has been given by presidents each year since after the founding of the country.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech at the beginning of World War II gave hope to millions of Americans.
- Abraham Lincoln spoke about emancipation and the survival of democracy.
The annual State of the Union addresses have come with unforgettable moments, emotional stories and powerful calls-to-action. From FDR’s speech given just before the US entered World War II, to Lyndon B. Johnson calling for a war on poverty, State of the Union addresses have kept Americans informed and appraised of the situation.
The State of the Union, which was scheduled for January 29, has been rescheduled for Febuary 5, following the end of the government shutdown.
Read on to see some of the most powerful stories presidents have told at State of the Union addresses throughout history.
George Washington’s powerful speech about knowledge in 1790 set up the tradition of annual State of the Union addresses.
In 1790, George Washington gave the first, and most brief, State of the Union address ever. In his speech, he said, “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”
He set a precedent for presidents to keep the public informed, on both the state of the country as well as the most pressing issues at hand, that has been followed ever since.
James Polk’s State of the Union address in 1848 sparked one of the largest migrations of people in United States history.
In former President Polk’s 1848 State of the Union address, he likely incited the California gold rush when he talked about how much gold could be found in the area.
“The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation,” he said at the time.
Hundreds of thousands of people migrated to California, and in 1850 California became a state.
Abraham Lincoln talked about the survival of democracy in 1862.
Some of Lincoln’s most powerful words came out of his State of the Union address in 1862. Just before his address, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slaves would be free.
In this address, he said, “We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union … In giving freedom to the slave, we ensure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.”
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech at the beginning of World War II in 1941 gave hope to millions of Americans.
FDR’s 1941 State of the Union address is famously known as the Four Freedoms speech. In it, he gave hope to Americans, citing their four freedoms – the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
At the time, many Americans still believed in isolationism and were hesitant for their country to become involved in the war. Roosevelt’s speech was a real pivot away from previous US policy and arguably helped motivate the adoption of the Atlantic Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN.
John F. Kennedy gave his first State of the Union just 10 days after behind inaugurated in 1961.
- NASA/SSPL/Getty Images
JFK opted to give the State of the Union just 10 days after he officially became President of the United States.
His speech focused on communism spreading in other countries and shared policy ideas for the economic depression.
He ended his speech with hope, and said “the hopes of all mankind rest upon us – not simply upon those of us in this Chamber, but upon … the spirit that moves every man and nation who shares our hopes for freedom and the future, and in the final analysis, they rest most of all upon the pride and perseverance of our fellow American citizens.”
Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union address in 1964 is known as the “War on Poverty” speech.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech on poverty set in motion numerous bills and acts, such as food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid.
“Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support,” he said. “But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.”
Many of the policies that Johnson spoke about during this State of the Union address became real resources that Americans continue to use to this day. This speech could be considered the beginning of programs like food stamps, Head Start, and national work-study program.
Gerald Ford’s first State of the Union address in 1975 said: “the State of the Union is not good.”
- Dev O’Neill/CQ Roll Call
Ford’s first State of the Union address was so powerful because it was so blunt. He talked about unemployment rates, recession and inflation, and proposed tax cuts and reduced government spending as remedies.
“Let us mobilize the most powerful and most creative industrial nation that ever existed on this Earth to put all our people to work,” he said. “The emphasis on our economic efforts must now shift from inflation to jobs.”
The space shuttle “Challenger” exploded the morning of Reagan’s planned State of the Union address in 1986.
Former President Reagan’s State of the Union address was delayed when the world learned that the space shuttle “Challenger” had exploded mid-flight. The speech was postponed from a Wednesday to the following Tuesday.
He talked about the tragedy, addressing, in particular, the nation’s youth, because he worried they witnessed Christa McAuliffe’s death on television. McAuliffe was a teacher in New Hampshire who was to be the first American civilian in space.
In his speech, he said, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future and we’ll continue to follow them.”
George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union came just a few months after the 9/11 attacks.
- Luke Frazza/Getty Images
George W. Bush’s second State of the Union address was just four months after the 9/11 attacks and right before the US’s involvement in Iraq.
Bush took the time to address the tragedy that the country was still healing from.
He talked about moments of optimism: “We last met in an hour of shock and suffering. In four short months, our nation has comforted the victims, begun to rebuild New York and the Pentagon, rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested, and rid the world of thousands of terrorists.”
Bush also took time to touch on the pain that was still very much there for many US citizens: “For many Americans, these four months have brought sorrow, and pain that will never completely go away. Every day a retired firefighter returns to Ground Zero, to feel closer to his two sons who died there. At a memorial in New York, a little boy left his football with a note for his lost father: Dear Daddy, please take this to heaven. I don’t want to play football until I can play with you again someday.”
Obama spoke about the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United in 2010.
During his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama called out the Supreme Court for their ruling on campaign advertising, which was unheard of for a president during a State of the Union address.
In his speech, Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.”
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