Luke Muehlhauser has a very interesting page up where he’s run every inaugural speech from every US president through an automatic reading level analyser. Here is the page for the full graph and stats. For the lazy, it basically starts off very high from George Washington and shows a slightly downward trend.
While the data is bumpy, all the “highly brainiac” speeches are at the start, with little left for the 20th century onward. Every speech from Washington’s first speech to Lincoln’s first (19 speeches) scores at least 15 on the complexity scale. On the other hand, every speech since Wilson’s first in 1913 (25 speeches) is below 15.1.
Now, some people might be using this as an excuse for more moral panic. Oh no, the edukayhsun sistem! How educated people were in the good old days! Of course what counted as people in the first place were white Anglo Saxon Protestant men of the landed variety! Proving that “we” should never have given “them” the vote! And so on…
Anyway, some might But I take a somewhat optimistic view of my readers (at least the readers who’ve previously commented a few posts). It’s for instance no coincidence that Woodrow Wilson also began his presidency with the first modern public conference where a president would take questions from reporters. No, a speech is meant to project the president’s image. I see it as a testament to democracy the degree to which [the speechwriters of] presidents have been making an effort to say something that will be understood by most people, not 2% of the public. If anything, presidents today are being criticised for being too brainy, (Obama got some flak for this after his inaugural speech).
I really don’t see that as a bad sign at all, but in any case it’s interesting. And just in case you actually lament for the good ol day of the proper-speaking gentleman, I present the flowery gobbledygook of George Washington. Note that this long paragraph is just the first THREE sentences of his inaugural speech.
AMONG the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years—a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.
Yeah. I think I’ll take the 10th grade reading level any day.