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In inaugural speeches, words matter

The New York Times has posted an interactive feature where you can see which words figure most prominently in each president’s inaugural address, beginning with George Washington and ending with George Bush.

It’s fascinating.

You can see the political differences between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and then Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison and Adams often used the word “nation” in their speeches, a word Jefferson (who favored less centralized government) largely avoided.

A word we now take for granted, “freedom,” was rarely used in inaugural addresses in the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest presidents used words like “duty,” “citizen,” “honor,” “trust” and “reason.” It wasn’t until Reagan that the word “freedom” reached the top of the pile, and the word reached its inaugural apex with George W. Bush in 2005.

Also, the words “America” and “American” don’t gain prominence until the 20th century. Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson used the words a lot, but the words didn’t begin to reach the importance they have today until Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Reagan made heavy use of them, as did Clinton and Bush II.

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