The priorities, the warnings, the hopes, and the dreams of New York's governors are now available in the New York State Library's Digital Collections. Enter into this collection and be transported back in time and immersed in fascinating messages by historic figures from colonial through contemporary New York. Reading these messages through the lens of history shows what a constant struggle it is to "form a more perfect Union."
Before there were State of the State addresses, the governors of New York gave an annual message to the legislature. This collection starts in 1683 with a message from Thomas Dongan, the 2nd Earl of Limerick, a colonial governor appointed by the Crown, and ends in 1996 with a message from New York's 53rd Governor George E. Pataki. In 1997 Governor Pataki gave the first State of the State address.
The collection offers a unique accounting of the major social, political and economic challenges facing New York State throughout its long history and offers specific information into how these challenges were met by the state's leaders. The messages crafted by some of the most prominent political figures in the history of the United States are rich in historical content and at times eloquent and moving. Teachers, students, professional researchers, and history enthusiasts will find the collection a valuable resource of primary source material.
The following are a few excerpts from this rich collection referencing major historical events from each governor's own perspective.
GENTLEMEN. -It gives me the most sensible pleasure to be able, from undoubted authority, to inform you of the surrender of the British army under Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown in Virginia, on the 19th instant, to the allied army, commanded by His Excellency General Washington. This signal manifestation of the smiles of Divine Providence on the justice of our cause, calls for our most devout acknowledgments; and while it reflects the highest lustre on the combined arms, affords us, the well grounded prospects of consequences the most interesting and agreeable.
Poughkeepsie, October 29th, 1781.
November 1. To the Assembly:
It is a most gratifying reflection, that during all the period of our late financial embarrassments, driving us to the necessity of direct taxation, our expenditures for education, for the maintenance of our penitentiaries, and for the liberal support of our public charities, have not merely not been diminished, but have been increased and extended, at least to keep pace with our increasing population. This single fact speaks volumes in favor of the intelligence, patriotism, and public spirit of our people.
We meet under circumstances of unusual solemnity to legislate for the honor, for the interest and for the protection of the people of the State of New York. The oath, which we have taken, to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York and to perform our duties with fidelity, has at this time especial significance. It teaches us to look upon each of these constitutions as equally sacred, that each is to be upheld in its respective jurisdictions. At this time, the power of the one is openly defied by armed rebellion, while the other is endangered by the confusion and discord growing out of civil war. This "oath, declaration or test," is not a mere ceremonial; it is a part of the tenure of the offices we hold. Until we have thus solemnly submitted ourselves to the commands of these instruments, giving up our personal views and opinions and pledging ourselves to obey their requirements, we are not permitted to perform one official act.
When last spring it became evident that the interests of humanity and of national honor alike demanded that we should drive Spain from the Western Hemisphere and free from her tyranny the subject peoples of the islands of the sea, New York responded with eager zeal to the call for volunteers, and in the Cabinet, in Congress and in camp, her representatives did all they could to ensure the success of the American policy. We are not merely New Yorkers. We are Americans; and the interests of all Americans, whether from the North, the South, the East or the great West, are equally dear to the men of the Empire State. As we grow into a mighty nation, which, whether it will or not, must inevitably play a great part for good or for evil in the affairs of the world at large...
I ask your careful consideration of the pending amendment to the Federal Constitution providing for national prohibition. It is not my intention to review the arguments that have been advanced in favor of, or against the Prohibition Amendment. The question to my mind is whether or not the people of this State are ready to surrender their inherent right to legislate upon this question. Are the people of the State prepared to forfeit any part of their police power? Are they reconciled to the policy of incorporating in the Federal Constitution a rigid restriction upon their personal liberty? I believe it is our duty to ascertain their will directly upon this subject. I believe we should consult them, and to that end, I recommend to your Honorable Body that legislation be enacted submitting the question to a popular referendum in order that its determination might represent the expression of the will of the majority.
I come before the Legislature, not only in accordance with the Constitution to communicate the condition of the state, but also to express the hope and belief that neither you nor I are entering upon our offices with partisan purpose. From the day of our election we become individually and jointly the representatives of all the people of the state.
We are charged with the duty of carrying on the existing functions of the government and also of initiating changes in present laws, made necessary by changing times, and of undertaking also new projects which an advancing civilization make desirable. The past six years have been an unparalleled era in our state. We have pointed the way of progress to our sister states and we must not allow this progress to flag during the coming year.
Most of our problems are not political: they can be solved by the same kind of cooperation on your part which I as the executive of the state hereby offer to you. A few are matters of an honest difference of opinion; most of these also can, I hope, find practical solution by frank discussion and honest effort to obtain results.
Europe, cradle of civilization, has lapsed into barbarism. Force, greed and hate are the tools of the aggressors. Think of it, in all of Europe one can scarcely find a country where men are free to speak, where editors are free to write, where the universities are free to teach, where workers are free to organize, where the ministers of God and their congregations are free to worship.
That is the tragedy of Europe—one hundred and twenty million people sacrificed to the lust of war-crazed dictators. They were peaceful people—like us. They were liberty-loving people—like us. Like us they were at times foolish and selfish. Foolishly they failed to recognize the growing menace to their peace and security. Selfishly they procrastinated and skimped in the preparation of their defenses. The result —disaster, destruction and slavery.
For the first time during this Administration we meet together without the overshadowing clouds and horror of war. The aggressors have been vanquished. Victory has been won through the valiant efforts of our armed services and with the stalwart support of those who worked on the home front. Today we give humble thanks to Almighty God for victory in the cause of justice and freedom. As we give thanks for victory let us also prayerfully re-dedicate ourselves to the task of maintaining free government as the greatest instrument ever devised for the advancement of the cause of human progress.
A new decade has begun in these days. We may leave to other, later and perhaps wiser ones the finding of a simple name or sign to mark this decade. On the broad stage of the history of our times, it may prove tragic or triumphant—for the hopes and aspirations of free men everywhere. But at the outset we can be assured of one thing: its grand consequences largely will be defined by these same people—by free men everywhere. In this sense, the decade is ours—ours to use, or ours to waste; ours for the sufferance of evil events, or ours for the creation of great events.
This is not poetic fancy. This is political fact. For we need the passage of no more time to be sure of one great matter. It is this: we, the elected officials of the State of New York—along with the public servants of every state of our nation, along with the responsible officers of every free government in the world—face the stark and immediate challenge of proving that representative government can work, serving all the people, securing freedom, and achieving justice for all.
This great challenge—and this great purpose—urgently summon the dedication of all our thought and courage and labor.
Back of this great purpose stand our basic beliefs in the nature and destiny of man—and the nature and structure of the political society in which he must live.
These are difficult times, for the entire nation. They are especially difficult for New York: for while we share the nation's trials, we are still more fortunate than most, and cannot expect more than our, share of help from Washington. But if we must confront our problems substantially unaided, that is surely less a source of regret than a challenge to our abilities and best nature. Texas has more land, California has more people, but New York is and remains the Empire State because of our people - their unquenchable energy and fire, their creativity and quick intelligence, their indomitable, spirit in the face of adversity. This is the state of immigrants, of those who persevered. Our fathers endured pogroms in Russia and famine in Ireland, slavery in the Old South, foreign conquest in Poland and grinding oppression in Italy, poverty and hardship everywhere. All these, the disasters of half the world, we survived; and built a state to astound the rest. No matter how difficult our problems, how severe the constraints under which we work, I for one have no doubt that we shall persevere, and help the entire nation to find its way again.
I end this Message as I began it, recognizing that we face great problems and challenges - the greatest budget gap in the State's history; punishing, protracted national recession that shows little sign of abating; a consequent need for reordering our finances, reorganizing our government, rebuilding our institutions and rekindling our people's hope.
A time of great difficulty, indeed. But no time for despair. There is simply no question that we have it within us to meet this challenge as we have met so many others. It takes only willingness to believe, to work, to give... together.
For as long as I have understood our history, I have been consoled by the notion that we are born to a legacy of achievement - to a people who have proven themselves worthiest when the challenges were most severe.
We should go forward therefore confidently. As was said about us once by one whose eloquence I could not hope to match:
*Bonus question: Can you identify the author of the above quote without resorting to Google? (answer below)
*Answer to Bonus Question: The quote in Governor Cuomo's message is from a dramatic poem by Stephen Vincent Benet titled "Listen to the People." (Radio broadcast July 4, 1941)