Comparing the Use of Pronominals and Metaphors of Various American Presidents

Seminar Paper, 2005

18 Pages, Grade: 1,00



A. Different ways and styles of following and also manipulating the political perception of the American people

B. Analysis of political rhetoric: From a newly independent nation to the mission of democratizing the world
1. The use of pronominals in political speech
1.1 A nation getting underway: G. Washington, J. Adams, Th. Jefferson
1.2 A nation divided: J. Davis, A. Lincoln
1.3 In a world at war: W. Wilson, F. D. Roosevelt
1.4 A pure glimpse of hope: J. F. Kennedy
1.5 The face of the modern world: W.J. Clinton, G.W. Bush
2. Different types of metaphorical phrases taken from the various speaking arrangements of the reviewed Presidents

C. Conclusion: Replacing the elite ‘You’ with the global ‘We’


A. Different ways and styles of following and also manipulating the political perception of the American people

The concept of political talk is not as old or traditionally anchored in our Western societies as we might expect it to be. The very first political footprints to be found in the history of mankind, made of course by the Greek and Roman cultures of the Ancient Times, were only a mere indication of the vast potential of the spoken word next to religious use. The law, political debate and inspiring speeches had evolved. But only since the total detachment from despotic rulers, egoistical monarchs and ruthless dictators are people really able to speak freely.

The most decisive detachment in history is documented in the Declaration of Independence of July 4th 1776, when the thirteen North American colonies formed their own government apart from the British Empire. Ever since then, the oldest democracy in the world has been through many domestic and global changes. And with these changes also came the change in political talk. The messages and intentions of the political speakers had to adapt to the ever changing environments, the not foreseen challenges and the unknown circumstances surrounding them. Especially the modern world of technology has altered the entire concept of speaking to the people and leading the nation. Instead of just having to address the Representatives of the Congress as perhaps George Washington had done, Presidents such as James Garfield or Dwight Eisenhower had the privilege of speaking to hundreds and later millions of their fellow-citizens, due to the invention of the telephone, radio and the television. And since this kind of availability has constantly progressed, the politicians are now more than ever present in our daily lives. The Internet has taken care of that. And exactly this kind of technological comfort can be used as an excellent tool. Political debates and speeches on television have proven their value to the average and also undecided voter. But no politician can convey his or her message via radio or television without outstanding verbal abilities. Being able to influence the average American viewer simply by appearing on television is not enough.

There are certain lingual and especially pragmatic elements a politician must possess in order to really reach out to the people. The two most important such elements which are recognized and acknowledged by the voting public are pronominals and various forms of metaphors. And since both the circumstances and the use of these two elements have varied throughout the existence of the United States, let us analyze how they have been used by certain Presidents at significant points in time in American history.

B. Analysis of political rhetoric: From a newly independent nation to the mission of democratizing the world

1. The use of pronominals in political speech

The following examples contain various forms of pronominal selection and choice. Being a vital factor for political and diplomatic conversation, the process of carefully formulating a plane sentence is not as an easy task as one might assume. Pronouns may not only function communicatively to reveal various aspects of the speaker’s attitudes or motivation, but they may also be selected within interaction for reasons beyond those reflected at a purely formal or categorical level.[1] It is not only the speaker who determines the significance and relevance of a certain speech, it is also the audience. Therefore it is important to shed light on all kinds of varieties of speeches and addresses given by the Presidents chosen for this analysis. In order to receive a balanced and complete impression of how political talk has changed to this day, the historically most important, decisive and relevant times in American history must be chosen. Consequently such times are the first two decades of the new independent nation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century; then only half a century later, facing the dreadful possibility of division in the Civil War. Two further events are the United States going to war in 1917 and 1941. In the last half of the twentieth century however there are more hopeful rhetorical highlights, such as those by John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961 and finally, forming the last pair of comparison, William Jefferson Clinton, the last American President of that century, and George Walker Bush, who obviously represents a very unique style of verbal capability.

1.1 A nation getting underway: G. Washington, J. Adams, Th. Jefferson

Being the very first to hold the office of President of the United States, George Washington plays an essential part in political American history. Every successor has more or less tried to relate to his kind of vocabulary and manner of speaking. However, there is one certain point that makes Washington stand out from all the other Presidents of this analysis. In reference to the use of the first-person-pronouns ‘I’ and ‘We’ he is very much focused on himself as the President.

Examples such as “my country”, “my duty” or “my fellow-citizens” prove how the former General sets himself apart not only from the American people, but also apart from the Congress.[2] The striking difference to all other Presidents is however that Washington does not use the pronominal form ‘We’ once in this speech. At least once does he include more individuals, but even this group is limited to the members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives when he talks of “our national policy”[3]. This can be recognized as an inclusive and an exclusive pronominal choice since he includes his colleagues of the legislative branch, but does not include the American people. Both the Congress and the President seem to be above the public. Washington obviously does not regard himself or the other elected officials as equals to the average man.

Another example of how he claims a superior position is his manner of differentiation. Not only does the head of the executive branch refer to the people as “they”, but then he also directs his comments only to the representatives by using the pronominal form “you”.[4] His point of view is very much based on the fact of him being mainly responsible for the well-being of the nation, working together with the other branches of government, but still ranking them second place. Washington wants to convey to the members of the Senate and the House his incontestable leadership of both the government and the nation. This message becomes quite clear, judging by the scarce use of plural pronominal forms in his speech. There is however one example which unites several different forms of pronouns and does not only capture the President’s power and superiority, but also a hint of unity and partnership:

“Having thus imparted to you my sentiments as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave (…) and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness (…) and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.”[5]

George Washington’s successor, John Adams, does not represent such a self-centered and overrated viewpoint. Even though he also first begins with pronominal forms such as “my country”, “my fellow-citizens” or “my posterity”, the second American President does not come to this sort of word choice until the fifth paragraph.[6]

Another positive difference is his stronger inclusion of not only the representatives, but also the American people themselves when he speaks of “our liberties” or “our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections”.[7] Addressing the public apart from the politicians indicates a direct strengthening of the bond between the President and the fellow countrymen. This is still a rather new relationship, but has a very good effect on how following Presidents spoke to the nation. Including both the people and the elected officials already presents a significant change in pronominal choice. By accepting the Congress as an equal partner in the Federal Government and also acknowledging the public, Adams still does not forget to stress the unchallengeable importance of his office and the decisions that evolve from it. The feeling of unity and partnership however has much improved, especially recognizable when he says: ”It may be foreign nations who govern us, and not we, the people, who govern ourselves.”[8]

The last person of this group to be analyzed regarding pronominal selection is not only the third President of the United States, but also the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Not only does he speak of “Friends and Fellow-Citizens”, but finally refers to the United States as “our country” and also speaks of “our Constitution”.[9] But this inclusive choice of a pronoun does not pertain to all the listeners. Delivering this Inaugural Address in the new Senate Chamber of the still unfinished Capitol building, it seems that Jefferson, as his predecessors, is speaking to representatives and not the public. Therefore an exclusion of a certain group still exists and is not yet fully overcome. But by positioning himself on the same level as the Congress and the American people, the President expresses a very strong and deep feeling of unity, trust and equality. Only twelve years after George Washington’s first Inaugural Address a significant shift in pronominal choice has taken place. No longer does the head of the executive branch see himself as the sole master or an elected king, but rather as a servant of the people. Jefferson’s above described feeling is clearly stated when he says: ”Let us then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.”[10] And even though he is part of the same generation as Washington and Adams, the idea of unity and equality with the other branches of government and especially the people is a very huge step in reaching out and portraying a more realistic way of politics, and not just in a pragmatic sense.

In conclusion it can be said that in the first decade and a half of the United States’ existence the attitude of power, responsibility and acknowledgment slowly but surely started to shift from being focused on the highest executive office of the Federal Government to a broader partnership between the elected officials and the American people. The increasing use of certain pronominal forms such as “We” or “Our” is of course a very helpful and important step in the right direction; not just as a satisfaction for the public and as a manipulation for one’s own political sake, but for the equality and unity of all countrymen.

1.2 A nation divided: J. Davis, A. Lincoln

As these next two example will show, the idea of equality and unity was not supposed to last for too long, only for about half a century to be exact. The debate over freeing slaves and granting them the same rights as all other American citizens was one of the most bloody and ruthless ever to be held on U.S. soil. The secession of eleven states from the Union, at that time consisting of 43 states, had created a deep division among the people. All the Southern States believed that keeping slaves was not wrong like the Northern States had thought it was. With this one simple but crucial difference existing, the option of war had become inevitable. That is why this event in American history is most important for the analysis of pronominal selection. A divided society, and in this case also a geographically divided country, bears many different viewpoints. Therefore the two main political protagonists of that time must be compared here: the Confederacy’s first and only President, Jefferson Davis, and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

In a similar way like Thomas Jefferson, Davis addresses not only the members of the Confederate States of America, but also includes his fellow-citizens.[11] The primary focus is on all the people of the Confederacy, the public as well as their representatives. Here he uses inclusive and also exclusive forms of pronouns. On the one hand, Davis speaks of himself as the President and of the Confederate Congress when he says “our career”; on the other hand he includes the people by talking about “our fathers”, “our necessities” and “our true policy”.[12] This way he is able to reach out to every citizen of the Confederacy without excluding or neglecting anyone. There is no preference, nor is there any discrimination made here.

Davis strengthens this feeling of unity by putting himself on the same level as the average Confederate citizen and the Congress when he uses the pronominal form ‘We’ most times. His goal is to bind the people together, as Southerners against the American Union, as the United States under Lincoln were referred to by the seceded states. The main objective is for the people of the South to feel and act as one, as “a people united in heart”, as Davis formulated it in his speech.[13] And since he knew that they were on the brink of war with the Northern States, it seemed of course both necessary and logical that he wanted to prepare the people and gain their support. A very deep and sincere feeling of unity and community emerges from the Confederate President’s Inaugural Address. However, Davis was not the only elected official having to explain the inevitability of war to the public.

Abraham Lincoln was facing one of the most difficult and challenging times in American history. Not only was he trying to persuade the states of the Confederacy to return to the Union, but was also struggling to keep the rest of the nation together. The very best piece of evidence for the significance of pronominal selection by Lincoln during this national crisis lies in the Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, one of the most famous speeches in the world. Not once does he mention himself as an individual person or as the head of the executive branch. He simply sticks to the first-person plural form ‘We’ throughout the entire speech. And this form includes every citizen of the American Union. The President makes no distinctions between elected Congressmen, Senators or the average man. His inclusive choice clearly brings out the same kind of deep and heart-warming feeling of unity and equal responsibility. An interesting similarity to President Davis is how both men speak of “our fathers”. This expression can be interpreted in two ways. Lincoln is referring to the Founding Fathers, the ones responsible for the founding of the Federal Government. Davis on the other hand also sees the fathers as those having formulated the Constitution, but praises the secession from the Union as the last step to fully abide by it.[14] Nevertheless, Lincoln succeeded in preserving the existence of the United States of America, based in no small part on such words as the following:

We are met on a great battlefield of war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”[15]

1.3 In a world at war: W. Wilson, F. D. Roosevelt

After returning to a more tranquil period, focusing on the economic and territorial growth of the nation, it was once again time for the United States to answer the call of duty. This time however it was the world stage they had to set foot on. The circumstances of being neutral and still being attacked by Imperial Germany left President Thomas Woodrow Wilson with little choice but to engage in the conflict in Europe. When speaking before Congress about this matter, he does not stand out in any way other than stressing the importance of the decisions pertaining to the situation which can only come from his office, as the example of “my constitutional duty” proves.[16] For the rest of the speech he concentrates on the unity of the nation by using plural pronominal forms such as ‘We’ and ‘Our’, sometimes only referring to himself and his fellow-politicians as the elected officials of the government having to deal with this matter, like the following example states: “(…): we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated”.[17] All other forms of pronominal choice include the American people alongside the President and the Congress as one, as can be seen in “our resources”, “our motives”, “our hope”, “our industries” or “our hearts”.[18] Wilson is preparing the public for something the same way Lincoln had also done: uniting them, including them in his address as part of the indivisible body which stands firm against any form of aggression or attack. This is obviously the only way to gain the support and trust of the people, especially when facing a major armed conflict on the other side of the Western world. And in times of war, it is vital to focus not on petty partisan differences, but on capturing and harnessing the spirit of the nation. This quote by Wilson proves this point very well: “We enter this war only where we are clearly forced into it because there are no other means of defending our rights.”[19]


[1] c.f.: John Wilson, Politically speaking ( Cambridge, Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1990) 46

[2] c.f.: First Inaugural Address of President George Washington, April 30, 1789

[3] c.f.: G. Washington

[4] c.f.: G. Washington

[5] c.f.: G. Washington

[6] c.f.: 1797 Inaugural Address – John Adams

[7] c.f.: J. Adams

[8] c.f.: J. Adams

[9] c.f.: T. Jefferson: First Inaugural Address in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, March 4, 1801

[10] c.f.: Jefferson

[11] c.f.: Inaugural Address of Jefferson Davis; Delivered at the Capitol, Monday, 18 February 1861

[12] c.f.: J. Davis

[13] c.f.: J. Davis

[14] c.f.: J. Davis

[15] c.f.: Eric Weiner, Facts America: The Civil War (New York, Smithmark Publishers Inc. 1992) 45

[16] c.f.: 2 April 1917 – President Woodrow Wilson’s War Message

[17] c.f.: W. Wilson

[18] c.f.: W. Wilson

[19] c.f.: W. Wilson

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Comparing the Use of Pronominals and Metaphors of Various American Presidents
University of Bamberg
English Pragmatics
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Englisch, Metapher, Pronomen, USA, Präsident, Rede, Rhetorik, Inaugaration, Amerika, Geschichte, Amerikanische Geschichte, Anglistik, Amerikanistik, Politik, US-Politik, Washington, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Jefferson Davis, Grammatik, Pragmatics
Quote paper
Jerry Paramo (Author), 2005, Comparing the Use of Pronominals and Metaphors of Various American Presidents, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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