George Washington’s State of the Union Address Holds Lessons for the 21st Century

It was a time when government knew its limits and its proper place, and the people did too.

Lawrence W. Reed – January 8, 2019

A few million people will be watching when President Trump delivers his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress on January 29. I doubt I’ll be one of them. The last State of the Union I watched from start to finish was literally 30 years ago, and I don’t feel the least bit deprived—intellectually, spiritually, or otherwise.

The first State of the Union address was delivered in about ten minutes by George Washington on this very date—January 8—in 1790. At barely 800 words, it was the shortest of them all (which now number nearly 230). Like the federal government itself, the subsequent ones grew far more in size than in quality.

Bill Clinton holds the record for the longest State of the Union Address in US history—a stupefying one hour and 28 minutes of nothing that anyone remembers. That was in 2000. It broke the previous record, set by Clinton himself, just five years before.

Whether the country wants to hear a State of the Union or not, every president gives us one each year because the Constitution mandates it. How long it is and what ground it covers is up to each president. And he can make it as general or as specific as he chooses and as partisan or non-partisan as he desires.

State of the New Union

Nostalgia prompted me recently to give Washington’s first State of the Union a look. Any president who can get the job done in ten minutes, I figure, is worth paying attention to.

When Washington spoke on January 8, 1790, federal spending as a share of GDP was about 1.5 percent (it’s 14 times that today). Federal debt was an estimated 30 percent of GDP, but it was on a path to zero, which it reached by the 1830s. The new nation was at peace with a new Constitution in place, and most people wanted to get on with their lives. They expected the national government to tend to its limited business of keeping the country free, get it done at minimal expense, and otherwise leave them alone. Washington’s address reflected that consensus.

He opened by congratulating the House and Senate for presiding over “the present favorable prospects of our public affairs.” He noted, in particular, the country’s strong credit and the impressive degree of respect America had earned in the world. To keep things moving in the right direction, he said, would require of members of Congress their “cool and deliberate exertion” of “patriotism, firmness and wisdom.”

Preserving the Peace

The most important matter deserving of the Congress’s attention, Washington advised, was “the common defense.” That is so politically incorrect in our age when 80 percent of federal spending has nothing to do with defense and lots to do with redistributive transfer payments and interest on past debts. In 1790, our first president made his point in a single memorable sentence when he said, “To be prepared for war is the most effectual means of preserving the peace.”

Keep in mind that Washington was no foreign adventurer; when he left office, he warned against “entangling alliances” and mischievous interventions. To him, and most Americans of his day, the federal government’s chief responsibility was to protect this nation, not a hundred others.

He suggested that the troops should be paid and the country should strive to be independent of foreign powers for its military supplies.

Limited Government

After a few paragraphs about defense, he asked Congress to come up with a definitive process of naturalization for foreigners seeking US citizenship; to establish uniformity in currency and in weights and measures; to encourage the embrace of inventions from home and abroad, and to tend to the creation of roads for delivering the mail.

Washington mentioned the importance of education, science, and literature but did not propose in his address any specific federal ventures in this regard. Noting that “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness,” he urged in the same breath “a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments [on liberty], with an inviolable respect to the laws.”

He closed his address with these words:

And I shall derive great satisfaction from a co-operation with you, in the pleasing though arduous task of ensuring to our fellow citizens the blessings, which they have a right to expect, from a free, efficient and equal Government.

Wow! A State of the Union Address that didn’t make promises that couldn’t be kept, didn’t try to buy anybody’s vote with somebody else’s money, didn’t propose anything that violated the spirit or the letter of the Constitution; didn’t mortgage our liberties with handouts; and didn’t pit one class or group against another. How refreshing!

Keep it short and sweet, set the tone, focus on the fundamentals. That must have been the advice of Washington’s speechwriter (himself). It was all over in ten minutes. The very thought of it makes me pine for the days when government knew its limits and its proper place, and the people did too. We were too busy building a nation to let a politician spend 90 minutes of our time telling us about it.


Lawrence W. Reed is President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Ambassador for Global Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also author of Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of ProgressivismFollow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.