The State of the Union has been a presidential tradition since the days of George Washington. He was the first to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress in 1790. However, in 1801, Jefferson decided to give his STOU Address in the form of a letter fearing annual speeches too reminiscent of a monarchical speech. President Wilson cemented the tradition of addressing Congress in person in 1913. He moved away from the written letter to push Congress on his agenda as president. The new technology in the decades to come (radio and television primarily) changed the nature of the STOU. It was now more readily accessible to the average American citizen.
The STOU undergoing so many changes from its inception in the 1790s makes it a fascinating primary source to study. And since every president gives an address, it is a consistent speech in each year of a presidency across each president. It will be very interesting to look at how the STOU differs in substance when it was delivered in written form vs in front of Congress and now in front of both Congress and the nation. How does the wording change? The contents? The phrasing and word choice? All of these seemingly subtle changes can have a massive impact on the speech itself and the reaction of both Congress and the people.
It will also be useful to look at the STOU address given in a president’s first year vs his 3rd or 4th year. Or, if he served multiple terms, comparing his 1st and 5th year speeches. It would also be worth looking at the wording and commonalities between presidents from the same region of the nation. I wonder if they use the same language or similar styles of writing. Another cross examination and comparison would be how different presidents talk about the same problem or crisis. Or even how different Republican presidents talk about the same issue or different Democratic presidents. The inter-party divides might be illuminated in those cases.
I would use a text analysis program to accomplish these research goals I have set for myself. Something like Voyant Tools or a similar program (still working that out. Any suggestions would be welcomed with open arms). The text analysis would allow me to track the most commonly used words or phrases for a given president during his administration, compare him to his successor, or even the most commonly used words by Democratic presidents between 1960-1970 for example. The possibilities are endless, and these questions are worth looking into.
All of the speeches are out there on the web. They just need to be tapped into and looked at against one another. This historical context and research paired with the digital component of text analysis shows just how powerful digital history can be with endless potential at the tips of our fingers.