Tag Archives: historical trivia

The State of the State of the Union Address

“When Joe Biden gives his first address to Congress, it will be the first time in US history that both seats directly behind the president will be filled by women.”
“When Joe Biden gives his first address to Congress, it will be the first time in US history that both seats directly behind the president will be filled by women.”
So apparently one of the straws that some QAnon followers are grasping at now in their delusion that somehow Donald is still secretly president and the Biden presidency is some fifth-dimensional chess ruse is that Biden didn’t deliver a State of the Union address by February 20. People grasping at this straw are under the mistaken impression that the Constitution demands that the address be given no later than that date each year. I suppose we ought to ignore these ignorant theories, but since debunking this one allows me to be pedantic, talk about the Constitution, and talk about history—I can’t just let it go.

Let’s begin with what the Constitution says on the topic. It’s nice and short: “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.” That’s it. There is no other mention of the term State of the Union in the Constitution. There are several things to note about this. First, it doesn’t specify any date, merely that he will do this “from time to time.” So the President can deliver the State of the Union as often or as seldom as he or she chooses. There is no requirement that it must take place before February 20 or any other date.

Second, the Constitution does not call it either a speech or an address, just that the President shall give Congress information about the State of the Union and recommend measures that the President thinks ought to be enacted. George Washington, our first President, started the tradition of delivering a speech to a joint session of Congress. John Adams, who had been Washington’s V.P. and became our second President also delivered the State of the Union as speeches. But Thomas Jefferson, our third President, thought that the spectacle of the President arriving at Congress and so forth was too kingly. So he chose to deliver it in writing. For the next 112 years, every President followed Jefferson’s model of sending a written report on the State of the Union and recommending laws that Congress should consider enacting.

In 1913 Woodrow Wilson became the first President since Adams to deliver the State of the Union as a speech before a joint session of Congress rather than as a written report. Calvin Coolidge’s address in 1923 was the first that was broadcast on radio (prior to that, the public had to read about the message to Congress in newspapers).

Another fun fact: even though that phrase “State of the Union” is right there in the Constitution, the message wasn’t called by that name until after President Franklin Roosevelt became the first President to include the phrase in the speech itself. Before then it was called either “The President’s Message to Congress” or “The Annual Message.” And that latter name continued to be the official name used in the Joint Resolution that Congress passed inviting the President to address Congress. The 1947 Joint Resolution was the first time that the event was officially referred to as the State of the Union Address. President Harry Truman’s 1947 State of the Union Address was also the first one to be broadcast on television.

One other important detail: the President is never invited to deliver the State of the Union Address in the first year of his or her term. They usually are invited to address a Joint Session in February shortly after being inaugurated, but that speech is not officially called a State of the Union Address.

And, because of the doctrine of the Separation of Powers (and the Founder’s notion that it is Congress that runs the government—not the President), the invitation to make the address must come from Congress, and it is Congress who determines the date of the address. On the other hand, the President can choose to simply send his or her message in writing, instead.

The fact that it didn’t happen by a particular date in February has absolutely no legal meaning, at all. I don’t know what plans, if any, are being discussed about a possible speech, but it seems to me unlikely we would have a typical Presidential Address to a Joint Session before next year. Because even though a whole lot of government officials have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine, it just does not seem like a good idea to cram the entire House, Senate, Supreme Court, most of the Cabinet, and a host of the usual family and dignitaries into a single room while we’re still in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

100 years of Daylight Saving Time, and most of what you know about it is wrong

“We just sucked one hour of your life away. Tell me... How do you feel?”
At least he was doing it for science… (Click to embiggen)

I was going to write a post about Daylight Saving Time, specifically the many myths that get thrown around by people trying to explain it. I think the fact that almost no one understands why we do it is one of the best arguments for why we shouldn’t do it at all. Let alone the problems the switch causes: Heart problems, road accidents and mood changes are associated with the DST time change. But while I was searching for a good image to attach to such a post, I found this Buzzfeed article and includes a section that hits all the notes I wanted to:

In 1905, a British architect named William Willett invented daylight saving time. Willett was out for his regular early-morning horse ride when it he noticed that 1) it was rather light outside, and 2) he was the only one up. Like Franklin, he thought this was a waste of perfectly good sunlight. And it ~dawned~ on him that instead of getting everyone up earlier by blasting cannons, they could simply shift their clocks forward to take better advantage of that sweet daylight. So, in 1907 Willett published a pamphlet outlining his formal proposal. He suggested that people turn their clocks forward 20 minutes every Sunday in April at 2 a.m. (And then they would set the clocks back by 20 minutes every Sunday in September.) He argued that this would get people outside and exercising, and that it would save on electricity, gas, candles, etc. (He also estimated it would save $200 million in today’s dollars. This was…again, a wild exaggeration.) A member of parliament, Richard Pearce, heard about Willett’s idea and was into it; he introduced Pearce’s Daylight Saving Bill to the House of Commons in February of 1908. The idea of changing the clocks four times in a month didn’t go over well, and the bill was eventually revised so that the clocks would be set forward one hour at 2 a.m. on the third Sunday in April (and then set back in September).

The bill was endorsed by merchants, banks, railroad companies, and the guy who created Sherlock Holmes, but was opposed by most astronomers and scientists. And one newspaper wrote “that if a man were going to a 7:00 dinner, under the new arrangement of daylight he would appear on the streets of London in evening dress at 5:40, which would shake the British Empire to its foundations.”

You know who else opposed the bill? FARMERS. They argued from the start that they couldn’t perform their operations at a different time — for example, they couldn’t harvest grass for hay while it was still wet with dew, and the dew wasn’t going to disappear earlier just because the clock had changed. And there were other activities that they couldn’t do until temperatures dropped after the sun went down. Basically, they hated DST from its inception.

Despite the association with farmers, daylight saving time actually came to the United States thanks to business owners (and war)
If you feel like garbage this week, you can direct your curses toward Marcus A. Marks, a clothing manufacturer; A. Lincoln Filene, a department store owner; and Robert Garland, a Pittsburgh industrialist. These three were very pro-DST, and were able to get labor organizations on board, along with the US Chamber of Commerce, the president of the National League of Baseball Clubs, and other prominent business owners. Even President Woodrow Wilson wrote a letter expressing his support for their efforts.

Less than two weeks after the US entered WWI, a daylight saving bill was introduced in Congress. It was heavily opposed by farmers, and also railroad companies, who were concerned about anything that could mess with the standard time zones (which had only recently become A Thing — a story for another day), and who said that 1,698,818 (!!) clocks and watches along their routes would have to be changed if DST were implemented. Because the fewest trains were running at 2 a.m., that became the proposed hour for the change-over. And because the most coal was consumed in March and October in the States, the bill was expanded to include those two months. On March 19, 1918, daylight saving time was signed into law in the United States, and took effect on March 31 of that year.

—“9 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Daylight Saving Time” by Rachel Wilkerson Miller, for Buzzfeed

The energy consumption savings argument was difficult to back up with numbers in 1918. The energy consumption argument at least had some slight possibility of being correct in 1918, when the vast majority of energy use was in factories, retail businesses, and the like. Residential energy use was limited to cooking, heating, and providing light usually with oil- or gas-burning lamps.

But in 2018 the argument doesn’t hold up. For instance, residential energy use thanks to all our computers, TVs, sound systems, game systems, refrigerators, microwaves, et cetera is a larger fraction of the total national energy consumption. And the amount of that home energy consumed for lighting is much smaller than all those other things. Also, a much larger proportion of businesses run 24 hours a day than did back then. Setting clocks forward or back has negligible impact on how much energy is used per day on a 24-hour business.

What I’m saying is, there isn’t much reason to justify the effort, the impacts on people’s health, and other costs of this twice annual fiddling with the clock.

Besides, I’ve always agreed with the one reaction, usually attributed to an elderly man on a Native American Reservation after first getting an explanation of Daylight Saving Time: “Only a fool would think you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, then sew it to the bottom to get a longer blanket.”