Many Americans probably do not realize this, but there is no constitutional requirement whatsoever that the President of the United States saunter off to the U.S. Capitol and deign to address a packed legislative chamber in quasi-monarchical fashion.
Consider the text of Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution:
[The President] shall from time to time 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.
The president, in order to fulfill his constitutional duty, must therefore merely “give…information” to Congress and “recommend” to Congress policy measures he feels are “necessary and expedient” to maintaining and improving the health of the republic. Nowhere in the constitutional text is there any mention of a presidential obligation to strut into the U.S. House chamber, be feted as Euro-style royalty, and deliver a highly symbolic and substance-less address to lawmaker minions. On the contrary, one might argue that such garish sycophancy toward the President is at odds with our basic constitutional structure, which established Congress as the most powerful branch.
What gives, then? Why do we put ourselves through this tawdry, bilious affair each and every year?
The short answer is that it is due to the first paradigmatic progressive to occupy the White House: Woodrow Wilson. Presidents George Washington and John Adams had opened the republic by delivering oral State of the Union Addresses before President Thomas Jefferson — ever the tyrant’s bane, notwithstanding sundry other personal defects — decided to unceremoniously quash the oral speech. For over a century, Jefferson’s example was the model that all successors would follow. The oral State of the Union Address was not rescucitated until 1913, upon the accession of Woodrow Wilson — a would-be autocrat and devoted Hegelian who would dedicate his political career to an all-out assault upon the Framers’ constitutional design and the principles of the Declaration of Independence alike — to his proverbial throne.
At his core, Woodrow Wilson despised all that the Framers considered exceptional about the American experiment. Wilson’s 1912 campaign — dubbed the “New Freedom” — was open and unapologetic in its desire to supplant the republic’s natural rights-based negative liberty order and tripartite separation of powers constitutional framework with an affirmative benefits conferral-based positive liberty order and administrative state-centric monarchical construct. As George Will wrote in a powerful 2012 column:
Progress, as progressives understand it, means advancing awayfrom, up from, something. But from what?
From the Constitution’s constricting anachronisms. In 1912, [Woodrow] Wilson said, “The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power.” But as [Claremont Review of Books Editor Charles] Kesler notes, Wilson never said the future of liberty consisted of such limitation.
Instead, he said, “every means…by which society may be perfected through the instrumentality of government” should be used so that “individual rights can be fitly adjusted and harmonized with public duties.” Rights “adjusted and harmonized” by government necessarily are defined and apportioned by it. Wilson, the first transformative progressive, called this the “New Freedom.” The old kind was the Founders’ kind — government existing to “secure” natural rights (see the Declaration) that preexist government. Wilson thought this had become an impediment to progress.
Contemporary students more frequently associate FDR’s New Deal with the commencement of progressivism, but as I wrote two years ago, “much like Kylo Ren and the First Order attempting to finish what Palpatine, Vader, and the Empire started, there would have been no FDR had there been no Woodrow Wilson.” It was Wilson — the unvarnished racist who re-segregated the Selective Service and proudly aired the Ku Klux Klan propaganda film, “The Birth of a Nation,” at the White House — who began in earnest the systematic project of stripping away the essence of American exceptionalism and replacing it with fanciful Germanic-inspired notions of “enlightened” administrative governance. Many unreconstructed paleoconservative types and “Lost Cause” heretics distort the legacy of Abraham Lincoln so as to depict him as a tyrant, but it truthfully was not until Woodrow Wilson that America had a true fascist-like demagogue occupying the White House.
Which brings us to the present. Presidents today who continue to orally deliver rhetorically extravagant State of the Union Addresses are — whether they realize it or not — following in the perverse footsteps of Woodrow Wilson, the would-be autocrat who shamelessly aggrandized executive power and made no effort whatsoever to conceal his intense disdain for the deliberative, “sausage-making” legislative process that the Framers so greatly cherished.
And for what end? For a few applause lines? To produce bread and circuses for the masses? To give the President’s political party a few clips to air on the campaign trail? To keep the cable news punditocracy gainfully employed?
There is nothing humble — and everything supercilious — about the modern phenomenon of the orally delivered State of the Union Address. In its present form, the orally delivered State of the Union Address is directly at odds with the notion of congressional supremacy — however outmoded that may seem, to some — that the Framers conscientiously enacted in our nation’s founding charter.
We should kill this fundamentally silly tradition, once and for all. Jefferson had it right — and Wilson, as always, had it wrong.