so although I often tell my students historians, unlike political scientists, aren’t much interested in attempting to predict the future, I thought it would be fun to see what digital history tools reveal about similarities between the present inaugural address and the prior ones.

I tweeted immediately after the speech

that was rather like listening to FDR with a dash of JFK thrown in.

My husband thought Obama sounded more like Lincoln, who of course the president quoted in his speech “a government of, and by, and for the people.”

Using digital history tools (AntConc to be specific, and  downthemall add on for Firefox) I ran the corpus of addresses (doesn’t hold current one).   In 9828 characters, Obama used people 11 times, making it the most common content word (for reference in 2009 speech, which was 1/3rd longer, he used it 7 times, or about 1/3rd less).

Looking at word frequencies across all inaugural address reveals that unsurprisingly, the use of people in inaugurals peaked (in raw count) during the Gilded Age Garfield coming in at 20 running through 25 for McKinley in 1897 (which then promptly dropped off by more than half to 12 in his second address).

Looking closer, and correlating usage by length (which the software measures by character count) we see indeed the President hit people about the same rate as Lincoln (go my spouse!), who in 1861 speech, roughly twice as long, used people 20 times. For comparison, in speeches just slightly shorter and just barely longer, Washington used people 4 times and Jefferson 2.  Obama’s numbers match almost exactly those of Clinton in 1993, as well as Roosevelt in 1937, (HA! vindication for my impression) in speeches of comparable length.

However what accounts for Obama’s high “people” count, is the rhetorical invocation of “we, the people”which occurred five times.

Checking the corpus, only two other presidents have ever quoted the starting words of the Constitution, Adams in 1797 and Eisenhower, although in very difference ways than the president

Adams warns against the influence of political parties

If an election is to be determined by a majority of a single vote, and that can be procured by a party through artifice or corruption, the Government may be the choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national good. If that solitary suffrage can be obtained by foreign nations by flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or venality, the Government may not be the choice of the American people, but of foreign nations. It may be foreign nations who govern us, and not we, the people, who govern ourselves; and candid men will acknowledge that in such cases choice would have little advantage to boast of over lot or chance.

Eisenhower, on the  other hand, extols the virtues of democracy

In the light of this equality, we know that the virtues most cherished by free people — love of truth, pride of work, devotion to country — all are treasures equally precious in the lives of the most humble and of the most exalted. The men who mine coal and fire furnaces and balance ledgers and turn lathes and pick cotton and heal the sick and plant corn — all serve as proudly, and as profitably, for America as the statesmen who draft treaties and the legislators who enact laws.  This faith rules our whole way of life. It decrees that we, the people, elect leaders not to rule but to serve. It asserts that we have the right to choice of our own work and to the reward of our own toil. It inspires the initiative that makes our productivity the wonder of the world. And it warns that any man who seeks to deny equality among all his brothers betrays the spirit of the free and invites the mockery of the tyrant.

Highest use of People?  In raw numbers, poor old Harrison who at 36 dwarfs the rest, although as we all know his speech was the longest (49700 or 5x longer than Obama’s, so still lower usage rate than Obama), much to his peril.  Also coming in high? Reagan, the everyman, who spoke of people 17 times in speech of 14561 (just about same usage rate as Obama).
However really high uses of “people” do not correlate with the Presidents we consider particularly “of the people.”   Cleveland for example, in a speech just barely longer than Obama’s used people 21 times, although he is speaking in 1885 during the high point of people rhetoric (his second address comes in high as well).
The conclusion, well I’ll leave you to draw your own, since as I said, historians rarely attempt to predict the future by studying the past. However the projects and questions that the President faces are in some not dissimilar from those during the Gilded age, a shifting economic base, financial upheaval, immigration, and post-colonial wars.   Here’s hoping he doesn’t react like a Grover Cleveland.  Rather let’s hope that “we, the people” becomes more than a rhetorical flourish and indicates that the President intends to work towards that more perfect union.
adendum, my antconc guru and digital go to for all things Heather Froelich asked me about the usage of pronouns, which makes for an interesting comparison to “people”   For most of American history Presidents did talk about themselves, and quite a bit.  As the tweets below reveal, that shifted around the Civil War.  Around Wilson it became positively unacceptable to talk about oneself, although in recent history Republicans have been more likely to do so than Democrats (with the exception of LBJ). As you might have guessed the converse is true for “we” which positively takes off in the 20th century.

  1. what  tells us about the inaugural, or why historians seldom attempt to predict the future hint Grover Cleveland
 2009 I = 3, me = 0, 2013 I = 2, me = 0
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  1.  now THAT is exciting. wasn’t expecting very many 1st person pronouns but that’s v low (cf “we did this” vs “i built this”)
  2.  overall trend only Republicans use. Bush II 11 & 9 Clinton 7 & 2 Bush I 26 Reagan 12 & 23 Carter 6, Nixon 21 & 12 LBJ 15 JFK
  3.  trend doesn’t really hold although historical one does, seems to be more freq. use of personal pronoun earlier in Am hist. +1
  4.  prior to Lincoln 2nd address only Was 2nd address (v. short) Madison, Jackson in single digits, then Cleveland 1885, Wilson +
  5.  post Progressive era seems to have become bad form to talk about yourself in inaugural address 🙂
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