Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

The State of the Union According to Millard Fillmore

Official Presidential portrait of Millard Fillmore

Official Presidential portrait of Millard Fillmore, 1857. By G.P.A. Healy. PD

Leading up to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which will be delivered on February 12, 2013, RTT will provide historical insights and feature materials from our archives.

“[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient...”

-Article II, U.S. Constitution

Seemingly innocuous constitutional provisions like the one above in Article 2, Section 3 are known for becoming less trivial in the era of “modern” presidents and “legislative leviathans.” When it comes to State of the Union addresses, however, the proof requires far less evidence. On February 12th, Barack Obama will give a speech before both Houses of Congress and a national television audience, and barring a significant shift in presidential strategic action, it will contain a substantive, charismatic appeal to the American people to support his 2013 agenda.

These descriptive facts are alien to States of the Union prior to the 20th century. A simple comparison will make the point clearer. Consider Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union in light of another titanic speech certainly worth remembering: the 1850 address of Millard Fillmore.

This is inaccurate, of course, because the 1850 State of the Union was not a speech, it was a letter (as the substantial proportion of SOTU addresses have been). In it, there is little in the way of emotional appeals, and it has an “agenda” that is minor by modern comparison. Fortunately, Fillmore was courteous enough to report the annual revenue and expenditures, and contributions to the reduction in national debt. In addition, it contains pledges to respect the office, an explicit reference to the state of nature, and general references to the goings on of the past year.