Much has been made of the fact that according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale, President Obama’s latest State of the Union address peaked at an eighth-grade reading level. Additionally, according to the article that first reported the story, Obama’s addresses have consistently scored in this range. In the past 70 years, only one address, George H.W. Bush’s 1992 offering, has scored lower than any of Obama’s. This led syndicated talk-show host and founding generation proponent Mike Church to publish a brief article comparing Obama’s address with Thomas Jefferson’s first annual message in 1801. The results — and they are not pretty or surprising — are found here. This brilliant work led me to think about how other presidents before 1934 would score, most importantly those from the founding generation and those considered to be unintelligent buffoons by both their contemporaries and the historical establishment.
George Washington is the most important man in American history, and as the first president under the Constitution set several executive precedents. Unfortunately, the quality (and brevity) of an annual message is not one of them. His first annual message to Congress was 828 words long, or about one-quarter the length of Obama’s third address. Regardless, its score on the Gunning Fog index — the “indication of the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to easily understand the text on the first reading” — is 24.99 and its Flesch-Kincaid level is 22. In other words, according to the Gunning Fog index and the Flesch-Kincaid scale, an individual would need a Ph.D. to understand Washington’s address the first time through, and it would take at least a college degree to read it with little difficulty. The average Gunning Fog score for Washington’s eight annual messages is around 20 and the Flesch-Kincaid is approximately 18. It must be remembered that Washington was virtually homeschooled as a youth. The Gunning Fog for Obama’s third address is 10 and the Flesch-Kincaid is 8.5, but when “we get each other’s backs,” as he so eloquently stated in his address, who cares?
Washington’s addresses were not unique among the founding generation, as the chart indicates. Not bad for a group of men who did not have the comparative advantages of a world-class public school education followed by an expensive American university degree.
The founding generation outperformed not only Obama, but every president of the last 70 years. Interestingly, the president from the founding generation with the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score, John Adams, was the only one who didn’t hail from Virginia. So much for the general belief that his home state of Massachusetts was the bastion of enlightenment and learning in the early federal period and beyond. But what about two men who have been described as perhaps the most ill-prepared and anti-intellectual presidents in American history, Andrew Jackson and Warren G. Harding? Certainly their scores should be in line with Obama’s, if not lower.
Jackson had a sporadic education as a youth and was viewed as little more than an intense frontiersman by those who came into contact with him. His spelling was atrocious, his grammar worse, he was a poor public speaker, and he admitted formal education meant little to him. He was a lawyer by trade, but anyone could take the bar exam in the antebellum period and many lawyers were self-taught (see: Abraham Lincoln). Jackson’s Gunning Fog: 21; his Flesch-Kincaid: 18. It seems a homespun frontier law degree measures quite well against a modern Ph.D.