State of the State: A History

Jan 18, 2011

Tomorrow Governor Rick Snyder will deliver his first state of the state speech to a joint session of the legislature and a statewide television audience. I’ve seen a lot of these speeches, and believe this may be the most eagerly anticipated one ever.

Michigan is stuck in twin enormous economic crises, one affecting state government, which has a perennial massive deficit, and the other affecting hundreds of thousands without jobs.

Governor Snyder is brand new, and we are still getting to know him. We want to have a better sense of who he is, and, especially,  how he plans to get us out of the mess we’re in.

But all this got me wondering: Who was the first governor ever to give a state-of-the state speech?  The first I remember was Governor Milliken, but how far back did the tradition go before him?

I knew that in the old days, governors just sent an annual written message to the legislature. U.S. Presidents used to do the same, until Woodrow Wilson started the tradition of showing up at the capitol and delivering a speech in person.

Since then, almost every president has done so. But who was the first governor to do so? I asked Bill Ballenger, the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. “Wow,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Neither did State Senator Steve Bieda, maybe the legislature’s biggest state history buff. So I left a message for former Governor Jim Blanchard, who delivered eight State of the State speeches. He texted back that he hadn’t a clue.

I called Governor Milliken, who delivered more State of the State speeches than anyone in Michigan history.

“I just don’t know when they started,” he told me. “You’d think I should know, but I don’t,” he said, laughing.

So who did start the custom? I was pretty sure it wasn’t my favorite governor, Epaphroditus Ransom. He served only two years, from 1848 to 1850, and once sent this crusty message to the legislature: “It seems best to dispense with all unnecessary and useless communications.” He then took off to run an Indian land office in Kansas, where he died. Actually, he isn’t my favorite governor at all. I just always wanted to say Epaphroditus on the radio. Next I called George Weeks, author of the only definitive book on all of Michigan’s governors, Stewards of the State, which actually has the only picture I’ve ever seen of Epaphroditus Ransom.

George sheepishly told me he didn’t know either, though he was sure that Milliken’s were the first to be delivered in the evening and televised. Next, I picked on Dennis Cawthorne. 

Now a top Lansing lobbyist, Cawthorne is a former Republican leader of the House, and a well-known expert on Michigan political history. “I can’t believe it, but I just don’t know when the first state of the state speech was,” Cawthorne told me.

He said he remembers at least one Soapy Williams state of the state, and he is pretty sure the custom started in the 20th century.

So there you have it; an authentic Michigan historical mystery . If anyone knows definitively when the first state of the state speech was, please let me know. On behalf of old Epaphroditus …

I’ll be grateful.