Presidential perspectives


Address: Not only have the issues of the annual State of the Union message changed, so has the manner in which they've been presented.

January 29, 2003

President George Washington was preoccupied with the Indian wars as well as building the new country's defenses and in his first State of the Union message, on Jan. 8, 1790, told Congress "to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

The president is required to deliver an annual message to Congress on the State of the Union - as President Bush did last night. Washington spoke to Congress in person, but during the 19th century presidents sent written messages. On Dec. 2, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson brought back the live speech, though subsequent presidents sometimes returned to the written word.

President Jimmy Carter gave the longest one, at more than 30,000 words. Washington's were among the shortest. Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson worried about the contagious sickness and disease sweeping the cities. Jefferson and many of his successors were pleased to be staying out of European wars.

Abraham Lincoln

Despite the burden of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was always mindful of the harvest. "In the midst of unprecedented political troubles," he wrote in his first message, Dec. 3, 1861, "we have cause of great gratitude to God for unusual good health and most abundant harvests."

Here is how he ended his second message, Dec. 1, 1862:

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.

"In giving freedom to the slave we assure 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. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just - a way, which if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."

Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt sent his first message to Congress on Dec. 3, 1901, after the assassination that September of President William McKinley.

"Of the last seven elected presidents, he is the third who has been murdered," he said, "and the bare recital of this fact is sufficient to justify grave alarm among all loyal American citizens."

Franklin D. Roosevelt

On Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "No realistic American can expect from a dictator's peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion - or even good business. ... Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Harry S. Truman

President Harry S. Truman, presiding over the Korean War, said on Jan. 8, 1951: "Our men are fighting, alongside their United Nations allies, because they know, as we do, that the aggression in Korea is part of the attempt of the Russian Communist dictatorship to take over the world, step by step. ...

"If Western Europe were to fall to Soviet Russia, it would double the Soviet supply of coal and triple the Soviet supply of steel. If the free countries of Asia and Africa should fall to Soviet Russia, we would lose the sources of many of our most vital raw materials, including uranium, which is the basis of our atomic power. And Soviet command of the manpower of the free nations of Europe and Asia would confront us with military forces which we could never hope to equal."

In his Jan. 9, 1952, message, Truman reported on a session of the United Nations in Paris, where the United States, Britain and France proposed a disarmament plan enforced by inspections.

"But what happened? [Soviet Delegate Andrei] Vishinsky laughed at it. Listen to what he said: `I could hardly sleep at all last night. ... I could not sleep because I kept laughing.' The world will be a long time forgetting the spectacle of that fellow laughing at disarmament.

"Disarmament is not a joke. Vishinsky's laughter met with shock and anger from the people all over the world. ...

"In all we do, we should remember who we are and what we stand for. We are Americans. ... We must have that same faith and vision [as our forefathers]. ... Let us prove, again, that we are not merely sunshine patriots and summer soldiers. Let us go forward, trusting in the God of Peace, to win the goals we seek."

John F. Kennedy

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