Print Proposal: The State of the State of the Union

Presidential State of the Union addresses are a format we all think we know pretty well. Every year, around the beginning of the new session of Congress, the president addresses both houses of Congress, laying out an agenda, speaking to the whole country, and well, describing what state the Union is in. It is a highly ritualized, formal process, and it’s hard to imagine it working any other way.

However, State of the Union addresses, or more accurately State of the Union messages, have not always been spoken. George Washington and John Adams both delivered oral addresses to Congress, but from Thomas Jefferson’s first year in office in 1801 until the end of William Howard Taft’s term in 1912, the State of the Union was a written message delivered to Congress, not a speech. Woodrow Wilson brought back the spoken address in 1913, and most modern presidents have followed his lead. The last written State of the Union was in 1981.[1]

While State of the Union addresses have been discussed and dissected ad nauseum, digital tools give us a unique opportunity to examine the entire corpus of these speeches and messages for stylistic and content differences. Based on an initial scan of the historiography, it looks like some digital analysis of these messages has been done, but none have focused on the differences between spoken addresses and written messages. My proposal is to take up that analysis and examine how the difference in form might have impacted the content of the message. Voyant Tools provides a number of useful options for this type of analysis, from overall word frequency to length to total number of words to correlations between individual words. The ready availability of the text of each of these messages should make it relatively easy to create a corpus for Voyant Tools to analyze.

Obviously, variation in language patterns across 200 years of history are going to have a significant impact on this analysis, as are major world events. For that reason, I’m planning to focus my analysis most heavily on the transitional era between 1913 and 1981, when there was some variation year-to-year in whether the president gave a spoken address or delivered a written message. This will allow me to compare the stylistic differences between written and spoken States of the Union within a single presidency, which should hopefully control for some of the other complicating factors.

[1] Gerhard Peters, “State of the Union Addresses and Messages,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/sou.php.

Introduction – Callie Hopkins

Hello all! My name is Callie Hopkins, and I’m a first-year MA student in the public history program. I graduated from Grinnell College (in the remote wilds of central Iowa) in 2014 with a double major in history and English, and I’ve been living in the DC area ever since. In between undergrad and the start of graduate school, I was an intern at the Civil War Trust for 8 months and then worked in Visitor Services at the National Geographic Museum for two years. At the moment, I’m a fellow at the National Coalition for History.

My research interests tend more toward the nineteenth century United States than anything else, but I’m interested in everything and try to remain a generalist as much as possible. One of the things I love the most about public history is that, done well, it can engage a public audience with a part of history they never thought they’d care about. I like to remain as open as possible to those kinds of revelations, both as a consumer of historical writing and projects and as someone who hopes to pursue a career in museum content writing.

I’ve worked with websites in a few of my past jobs, but mostly in pretty conventional ways: writing articles, sending email newsletters, a little basic HTML, that sort of thing. I’m excited to learn more in this class about the variety of digital tools I can use as a public historian. Also, to be honest, I’ve seen some very lackluster online exhibits, and I’ve yet to be convinced that they can have anywhere near the impact of an in-person exhibit experience. I’m hoping to be proved wrong by the end of the semester.