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From the archives: The State of the Union: An American tradition

Tomorrow, President Obama will walk into the chamber of the House of Representatives, and in the presence of members of Congress, the Cabinet, and Supreme Court justices, deliver his State of the Union address.

The annual address has changed formats over the course of American history, but its basis is formed in one line of the Constitution. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1, states that 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.” In the absence of more specific instructions, our nation’s presidents have interpreted the Founding Fathers’ charge in different ways.

President Washington delivered the first State of the Union address from Federal Hall in New York City in January 1790 (though it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who first called it the “State of the Union address” in 1945). Washington praised the accomplishments of the 1st Congress and outlined a legislative agenda for the new year: improving the army, building post roads, and developing standard systems of currency, weights, and measures.

President Jefferson didn’t like the idea of delivering a grand speech—it seemed too “royal” to him—so instead he wrote his annual messages and sent them down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where a congressional clerk read them aloud each year. The Presidents who followed Jefferson kept up the tradition, and for more than a hundred years, the State of the Union was delivered on paper only. The public could read them in the newspaper.

It wasn’t until President Wilson in 1913 that the State of the Union became a formal address again (though in the years since, 22 State of the Unions have come in written form, the most recent being in 1989). President Coolidge delivered the first radio State of the Union address in 1923, and President Truman delivered the first on television in 1947. It was President Lyndon B. Johnson who moved the address from the daytime to a primetime television slot in 1965 to garner a larger audience to hear his plans for civil rights reforms and the Great Society. President George W. Bush’s 2002 address was the first to be streamed live on the White House website.

So what can you expect to see on Tuesday? The address will begin after the House’s sergeant-at-arms announces the President, who will enter the chamber to a standing ovation. Flanked by Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, the President will address the nation directly. He’ll lay out his domestic and foreign-policy vision for the upcoming year. Afterward, a member of the Republican Party—this year, Sen. Marco Rubio—will deliver that party’s televised response.

As is tradition, one member of the Cabinet won’t be in attendance—he or she will be watching from a secure location instead. With the President, Vice President, speaker, and other prominent members of government gathered in one room, in the unlikely event of a catastrophe, the “designated survivor” will ensure continuity of government.

Be sure to watch President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. ET on TV or via the enhanced White House live stream.