On this day in 1790, George Washington gave the first State of the Union in NYC

January 8, 2019

Photo of Federal Hall and the George Washington statue, via John Schiller/Flickr cc 

Right now, Federal Hall at Wall and Broad Streets is closed due to the Government Shutdown. But long before the current crisis, Federal Hall was the site of several Federal firsts. New York was the nation’s first capital, a distinction the city held until 1790, and the original Federal Hall, at the site of today’s monument, was the first Capital Building. Federal Hall hosted the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch Offices. The building witnessed the drafting of the Bill of Rights and the passage of the Northwest Ordinance. George Washington took his Oath of Office from the balcony of Federal Hall on April 30, 1789, and on January 8, 1790, he delivered the nation’s very first State of the Union Address from the building’s Senate Chamber.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s Federal Hall ca. 1797, via The Library of Congress

That day, with Senators on his right, and Representatives on his left, Washington delivered what was then known as an “Annual Message to a Joint Session of Congress.” Clocking in at just 1,089 words, the speech stands out as the shortest State of the Union Address in American history.

Though it was short on words, the message was long on import, addressing issues that remain hot-button topics today, including defense and immigration. Ever the General, Washington asserted that, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual ways of preserving peace.”

But national security did not mean closed borders. Washington named it “expedient, that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens, should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization.” The President also encouraged “the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad.”

A copy of that first State of the Union, via Wiki Commons

Rather than force a Government Shutdown, Washington was a passionate advocate for a robust and informed civil society. He told Congress, “there is nothing, which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature.” He continued, “Knowledge is, in every Country, the surest basis of public happiness.” Further, he maintained, “every valuable end of Government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people.”

Washington closed his speech by reminding Congress what it really means to be a public servant: “The welfare of our Country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed. 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.”

The next State of the Union Address is scheduled for January 29, 2019. It remains to be seen where the cares and efforts of 116th Congress will be directed.


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