In his State of the Union speech this week, President Obama declared that “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”
Despite overwhelming Republican successes at the polls in November, Obama’s remarks displayed remarkable optimism about the possibility of “a better politics” where cooperation is possible, “where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.”
“I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things,” he said.
But how united are we? If we doubt that the new Congress will be able to accomplish any more than its predecessor, are we cynical or just realistic?
The larger question is whether our divided politics are a passing state of affairs or truly corrosive to our national unity. If it’s the latter, then maybe we will look back years from now to see that all along we were dismantling the structure assembled by our founders when we failed to keep building it.
The State of the Union’s origins can be traced to the Constitution, which states that the president “shall from time to time give the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
But the nature of the address has changed over time. George Washington’s 1790 speech was not only the first but also the shortest—with a total of 1,089 words. The practice of televising opposition responses began in 1966.
In that first State of the Union, George Washington spoke of working with Congress:
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 cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.
Even as the rumblings of party began to crack the hoped-for unity of the young government, Washington mostly refused to acknowledge signs of faction.
But he did take a moment to request heavenly aid to keep the country together in the wake of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794:
Let us unite, therefore, in imploring the Supreme Ruler of Nations to spread his holy protection over these United States; to turn the machinations of the wicked to the confirming of our Constitution; to enable us at all times to root out internal sedition and put invasion to flight; to perpetuate to our country that prosperity which his goodness has already conferred, and to verify the anticipations of this Government being a safeguard of human rights.
In 1799, the Sedition Act was still in force, criminalizing public criticism of the president or other public officials. In his annual message John Adams declared his confidence that in working with Congress, “our mutual labors will serve to increase and confirm union among our fellow citizens and an unshaken attachment to our Government.”
But Adams was speaking to fellow Federalists, whose Congressional majority crumbled shortly after the election of Thomas Jefferson little more than a year later.
Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 State of the Union came in the midst of civil war. Even though the fight was on, Lincoln was still looking for a compromise that would shorten the war.
He proposed that all the states should adopt gradual emancipation that would end slavery by 1900. Slaveholders loyal to the union would be compensated. Lincoln recognized that there were many different viewpoints even among the opponents of slavery, but that compromise was necessary to preserve the health of the union.
Because of these diversities we waste much strength in struggles among ourselves. By mutual concession we should harmonize and act together. This would be compromise, but it would be compromise among the friends and not with the enemies of the Union.
Americans have become accustomed to annual addresses that seem to be lengthy wish lists for new (and soon-to-be-forgotten) programs. But they may also be considered, in the language of social media, status updates, statements of where we are and which direction we’re headed.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union was an attempt to keep Americans focused on completing the war mission as the end appeared to be in sight.
If ever there was a time to subordinate individual or group selfishness for the national good, that time is now. Disunity at home, and bickering, self-seeking partisanship, stoppages of work, inflation, business as usual, politics as usual, luxury as usual -- and sometimes a failure to tell the whole truth -- these are the influences which can undermine the morale of the brave men ready to die at the front for us here.
But while wars end, the work of citizens cannot. So are we doing everything we can to keep building the republic? Or are we letting it fall apart from neglect?