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
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.
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.