"The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." - The Constitution, Article II, Section 3
George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address on January 8, 1790. His speech centered on the idea of unity itself, that democracy was in its infancy and its success needed to be proven. The tradition of a speech continued under the administration of John Adams with much pomp and circumstance.
Thomas Jefferson rejected the idea of a large speech and the ceremony that surrounded it. To him it was the type of ceremony common to the British monarchy that the founding fathers had rejected. True to his pledge of a return to a more “simple” form of government, he chose to send a written message rather than deliver a speech. The President's Annual Message, as it was then called, remained a written document for the next 112 years.
But it still had impact on the formation of American policy. In 1823 James Monroe set forth The Monroe Doctrine that prohibited European intervention in the Americas. In 1862 Abraham Lincoln rallied support for The Civil War and declared the union "the last, best hope of Earth." Ulysses S. Grant’s final address was an angry defense of his second administration, which had come under fire for various scandals including widespread corruption in the Treasury Department.
In 1913 Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of delivering the annual message in person, giving a dramatic speech calling for tariff reform. Since the advent of radio and television the speech has become a major campaign event. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson moved the speech from midday to the evening in order to attact a larger television audience. The address is now used to present issues and reforms to the American people. LBJ used the speech to outline his "Great Society" platforms. Ronald Reagan, after having his 1986 speech postponed due to the Challenger explosion, used his final speech to apologize for the Iran-Contra scandal.
The State of the Union Address has evolved from an neccessary report to Congress on the health of the country, to a major media event that can paint the image of the President into the eyes of the nation.