“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”1 Thus ended one of the most iconic Presidential Addresses in history.Presidential inaugural addresses are when the incoming President exalts the nation and its values, tells the people where they have come from, and where they are headed.
Each address bears signs of the time in which it was written and delivered, mainly through diction. As a personal foray into natural language processing, I wanted to take in all of the inaugural addresses U.S. presidents have ever made and look at some trends that fall out of the data.My process here was to take in and count both the total number of words a President spoke and also count the number of unique words they spoke. A word is “unique” the first time it shows up in the passage. So if the word “government” were to show up the first time, it would be added to the entire total of words and the number of unique words. If it were found again later in the passage, the number of words in the list would be increased, but the number of unique words would not be. Later on in this article, I will discuss “non-grammatical words” in conjunction with unique ones. By “non-grammatical” I mean words that are not placeholder words like “a” or “of,” but rather nouns, some verbs, and most adjectives. For verbs, I did not include “is,” for example, and most adjectives because I did not include something as bland as “good,” for example.Naturally, the first thing I did was line up all of the total word counts and unique word counts side by side. A few fun aberrations here: First of all, George Washington’s second inaugural address was so short, 133 total words, that there was only one non-grammatical, unique word used more than once: “Oath”. On the opposite side, William Henry Harrison, after only one month in the White House, had a whopping 7982 total words. Many believe that he died due to pneumonia that he caught from being out in the cold so long without a coat during his speech. However, modern autopsies based on the medical notes of Harrison’s doctors suggest that he actually succumbed to a gastrointestinal bug of some kind, most likely due to the large amount of sewage in the swamps that surrounded the White House at that time.
From there, I wanted to investigate each speech on a more individual level, looking into the most frequently used non-grammatical words in each speech. Most of these display what I had assumed about inaugural addresses coming in—they are mostly made up of platitudes and generalities. “Government” is in the top 10 of nearly every single speech, as well as “public,” “states,” “power,” “people,” “constitution,” etc. As I stated previously, this is a time meant to reaffirm the nation’s beliefs in its government, rather than to lay out complicated policy proposals. However, I did find a few trends that merited further study.
The first trend I noticed is that the term “America” became much more prevalent as time went on. I looked at the number of times the root “America” appeared as a percentage of the total word count in the speech. In this example, terms like “Americans,” “Americas,” and simply “America” would all be considered the same word, as they stem from the same word root, “America”. As I suspected, America came more into vogue in recent years.There could be many different explanations for this. It is possible that the purpose of inaugural addresses has changed over the years, meaning that there is more talk of foreign policy and the world as a whole, necessitating the use of “America” to specify what the President is talking about. It could also be that the term itself has become more popular in recent years, not just in these speeches but in the common lexicon. These are both unfounded suppositions but possible explanations nonetheless.
Since these addresses often talk about the present condition of the United States, as well as what they have just come out of and are about to do, I wanted to look at the frequency of the word “war” in these speeches. I approached this in the same way I looked at the frequency of “America” in these speeches, by looking at the number of times the root “war” appeared in the speech as a percentage of the total number of words spoken. I then wanted to look at whether there were spikes in the use of “war” when we were at war, or had just been at war. I created an ordinal scale for the state of whether the United States was at war or not, the values 0, 0.01, and 0.02 relating to the United States not being at war, being somewhat at war, or not being at war at all respectively. I considered some “police actions,” such as the Korean and Vietnam wars. I took military actions, such as the naval battles against the Barbary Coast pirates, to be a state of being somewhat at war. In general, I thought of this state as one in which our military was entirely involved, but the average citizen was not affected. What I found was that there was a significant uptick in the uses of the root “war” when the United States was either at war, or had just recently been to war. James Madison’s second address was during the War of 1812, and as such there were a great many mentions of war as it was weighing on the public consciousness. The same goes for Lincoln’s second address, which despite being extraordinarily short at 698 words mentioned war 12 times.What I found interesting is that despite the fact that in recent years we have been almost constantly embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East, there have been almost no mentions of the term “war”. Even with new terms that involve “war” coming into vogue, like the “war on drugs” or “war on poverty,” etc., there has been relatively little mention of the term. Again, there may be many reasons for this. It may be because these conflicts are termed as “military actions” or “police actions.” The word “war” has certain connotations for most people that the President may not want to invoke.
If you’re looking for specific policy proposals and the attempting to look at these speeches as a timeline of the United States, you’re going to have a bad time for a few reasons. These speeches do not mark the achievements of our past or detail breakthroughs of government or nation as a whole, but serve as landmarks in terms of their diction rather than their content. In any case, these speeches do provide interesting insight into the content and purpose of inaugural addresses over the years, as well as certain linguistic trends.
- 12 great inaugural quotes. (2013). Retrieved February 04, 2016, from http://www.politico.com/gallery/12-great-inaugural-quotes?slide=6
- Chronology of Inaugural Addresses. (n.d.). Retrieved February 04, 2016, from http://www.inaugural.senate.gov/swearing-in/addresses