It happened today - January 8, 2016

On January 8, 1790, George Washington made the first “State of the Union” address to Congress. It would never do today.

For one thing, it’s just 1,088 words including the salutation to “Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives”. For another, he congratulated and praised Congress rather than himself. For a third, he noted concisely that “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”

He went on to list a number of appropriate goals. But he did not tell Congress he had a plan they should follow for achieving it. He knew about the separation of powers.

He did admit frankly that one of his policies, for reducing tension with aboriginals, had failed. And he asked Congress to set official pay rates for the foreign service and be sure to provide money to cover such expenses. And he asked them to devise uniform rules for naturalization and for currency, weights and measures. All sober, sensible stuff designed to allow people to live their own lives, not compel them to adopt new and better ones.

He did note the importance of infrastructure and of patents, and (no one is perfect) asked Congress to promote science and literature. But at least his goal was “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights” and to know the difference between “oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority” and to distinguish “the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness”. And he left it to them to decide how best to do it, whether by subsidizing existing “seminaries of learning” or “the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the legislature.”

With that he was nearly done, merely praising the House of Representatives for taking “support of the public credit” seriously and telling the Senate he was giving them “such papers and estimates” as they probably needed.

One final general paragraph and he was done.

Notice the sensible, limited, prudent attention to things that actually matter that government can actually do. And notice also what is absent here.

No shout-outs. No carefully positioned photo-op guests. No applause lines. No partisanship. No lies, exaggerations or unreasonable claims. No wild promises. No social engineering. No windy vanity. No campaign promise-style drivel.

As I say, it would never do today. Still, it’s kind of refreshing to read.