- - Thursday, January 7, 2016


No matter the reception to President Barack Obama’s forthcoming state of the union address, this annual rite of passage hasn’t been much for historians to write about. Whether sent to Congress in written form or delivered in person, whether short or long, the messages have been uniformly dull.

Their most interesting parts have been presidential requests for legislative actions that are sometimes eyebrow-raising. For instance, President Millard Fillmore in 1850, recognizing that three-of-every-four Americans depended on “cultivation of the soil” for a living, wasn’t reluctant to talk about the nitty-gritty of raising corn, onions and other crops — fervently pleading for a dung deal:

“Peruvian guano,” he indicated in a wordy sentence, “has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end.”

Fillmore went on to urge the establishment of a federal agricultural department “to examine and report upon the qualities of different soils and manures best calculated to improve their productiveness.”

President Andrew Jackson’s beef in his first state of the union message in 1829 was to urge passage of a constitutional amendment eliminating the role that the House of Representatives has in selecting a president when no one candidate has a majority of electoral votes. For in the 1824 election Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams in a House-decided vote, although he had the most popular and electoral ballots.

Jackson was vague on specifics for dealing with this exigency, except to exclude all members of Congress “from all appointments in the gift of the President, in whose election they may have been officially concerned.” Surprisingly, this two-term chief executive, nicknamed “King Andrew” by opponents, went on to argue for a constitutional amendment limiting the president to a single term of four or six years.

Then there was President Ulysses Grant in his final message in 1876 who surely surprised congressional members on both sides of the aisle by hoping he would be forgiven for all the many mistakes of his administration because he was so ill-prepared for the nation’s highest office:

“It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training. From the age of 17 I had never even witnessed the excitement attending a Presidential campaign but twice antecedent to my own candidacy, and at but one of them was I eligible as a voter.”

But the grand prize for unexpected recommendations has to go to President Theodore Roosevelt in his 1904 message, one section devoted to crime:

“There are certain offenders,” the old Rough Rider and former New York City police commissioner argued, “whose criminality takes the shape of brutality and cruelty towards the weak, who need a special type of punishment. The wife-beater, for example, is inadequately punished by imprisonment, for imprisonment may often mean nothing to him, while it may cause hunger and want to the wife and children who have been victims of his brutality. Probably some form of corporal punishment would be the most adequate way of meeting this kind of crime.”

One aspect of the message that hasn’t been surprising over the years is the congressional ceremony for personal appearances by the president, as illustrated by an entry in George Washington’s diary after his first address in 1790:

“After being seated, at which time the members of both houses also sat, I rose (as they also did) and made my speech, delivering one copy to the president of the Senate, and another to the Speaker of the House of Representatives — after which, and being a few moments seated, I retired, bowing on each side to the assembly (who stood) as I passed …”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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