“A little after noon on January 8, 1790, George Washington climbed into his cream-colored coach and rode off to Federal Hall behind a team of four snow-white horses. In its sparsely worded style, the Constitution mandatd that the president, from time to time, should give Congress information about the state of the Union, but it was Washington who turned this amorphous injunction into a formal speech before both houses of Congress, establishing another precedent.” Ron Chernow, “master” of Alexander Hamilton, penned those words in his biography of our first President, which was just recently released and is ready for your absorption.
In today’s world, with 220+ years of tradition to back us up, the State of the Union speech is something to which I look forward every year…to not watching. I suppose it’s because I’ve become jaded to a process that has become so complicated and so expensive (to say nothing of being so mired in unrecoverable debt) that I no longer care to sit for 90 minutes and listen to the Commander-in-Chief talk about spending additional billions (or more) to assist us in our “pursuit of happiness”. My dad has said many, many times that “everything translates to bucks”, and every word from a President’s lips (nowadays, at least) sounds to me suspiciously like a cash register ringing.
But in 1790, it wasn’t quite that way. Oh, there was money that needed to be spent, but it wasn’t due to massive bloat in government. It wasn’t caused by a debt so deep that simply paying on the interest was nearly impossible.
It was more about getting an actual government started. Everything was new. Chernow writes that everything (including the protocol for this first State of the Union Address) “still had an improvised feel.” There was no precedent to follow, because new precedent was being set as the sun rose on each new day. And President Washington talked hopefully about each step forward, desirous that would make the country stronger and more prosperous.
There was joy for North Carolina’s entrance into the Union. She had rejected statehood in 1788, but voted to join in November of the following year. He talked of the need to establish credit and spur economic growth, hinting at Hamilton’s upcoming report (which I hope to discuss next week) and accompanying financial program. Washington spoke of national defense which, along with the Revenue Cutter service (to be started later that year), had some folks already worrying about government expansion and intervention. Improved learning and a proposal for a national university also had a place in an “Address” that was both brief and to the point.
And then it was done. The legislators stood up, Washington bowed, and stepped down.
Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life – Thanks to Martin over at What Would the Founders Think for a review that pushed me over the edge to purchase this book. If I can ever get Madison’s biography finished…