FREEDOM! LIBERTY! -- How Presidents Exploit Words

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Mr. Coe is a doctoral student in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation examines presidential and press justifications for war. He is the author, with David Domke, of the forthcoming book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America (Oxford University Press). This essay draws from his article “The language of freedom in the American Presidency, 1933-2006,” forthcoming in Presidential Studies Quarterly.

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As the 2008 presidential campaign continues its long crescendo, we can expect to hear a lot of talk about freedom and liberty. After all, the candidates are trying to sound presidential and there is no more certain way to do so than to rely on what have long been presidents’ favorite symbols. So popular are freedom and liberty with the current president that in his second Inaugural address Bush used some form of these terms 49 times—more than two references for every 100 words he spoke. He ended up making more references to freedom and liberty than to he did to “America” and the “nation” combined.

Clearly it’s no secret that presidents like to talk about freedom and liberty. In their Inaugural and State of the Union addresses, presidents since FDR have averaged about 15 uses of these terms. But what are presidents really saying when they invoke these familiar symbols? How have presidents put these powerful political terms to use? A close look at every mention of freedom and liberty in the last twelve presidents’ Inaugurals and State of the Unions (that’s 1,126 mentions, if you’re counting) provides some answers.

On the surface, modern presidents’ use of freedom and liberty seems a portrait of consistency. They have, without exception, talked about freedom (and liberty, which is used interchangeably) in three general ways. First, they have described America as the nation uniquely positioned—even destined—to lead the “cause of freedom.” As Kennedy put it in his 1962 State of the Union, “Our nation is commissioned by history to be either an observer of freedom’s failure or the cause of its success.” Presidents have then used freedom as a primary criterion for determining who should be treated as a friend and who as a foe. Since 9/11, for instance, President Bush has talked frequently about “enemies of freedom” who wish to do the nation harm. Reagan used the very same language in his Inaugural, and Johnson in his 1965 State of the Union spoke of “the foes of freedom.” Finally, presidents have relied on freedom as a rationale for the implementation of their political policies. Wars have often been justified based on freedom—as with Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms,” which inspired a series of Norman Rockwell paintings that became the promotional material for a national war-bonds campaign—but the stakes haven’t always been so high. Whatever the policy, whether foreign or domestic, serious or slight, presidents have often used freedom to justify its necessity. The consistency of presidents’ messages over the past eight decades is striking, if not altogether surprising. 

When one looks very closely, however, this consistency gives way to some interesting variation based on the political context in which presidents spoke and the party to which they belonged. For example, when surveys indicate that the public’s attention is focused more on foreign affairs than on domestic issues, presidential use of freedom nearly doubles. Further, during such periods presidents have been about four times more likely to define freedom as something that is universally desired and deserved. Viewed as an increase, this trend illustrates the regularity with which presidents have relied on freedom to frame America’s engagement in world affairs. Viewed as a decrease, however—i.e., discussion of freedom overall, and especially discussion of freedom as a universal value, drop dramatically when the public turns its attention to domestic affairs—this trend may well be discouraging to those groups of citizens within U.S. borders who feel they have yet to experience their full share of liberty.

Republican presidents have invoked freedom more often than have Democratic presidents, making almost twice as many references in the average Inaugural and State of the Union address since 1933. Republicans have also styled these references differently than have Democrats. In particular, they have been more likely to use freedom in general terms as part of the broad, nation-affirming language that often appears near the beginning and end of State of the Union addresses. They have also been more likely to make declarative statements about freedom’s relationship to America, such as “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation,” which President Bush offered near the end of his 2003 State of the Union.

In contrast, Democrats have more often defined freedom in specific ways—as something with universal appeal, as something foundational to the American experience, and as something distinct from other entities, such as communism, tyranny, and so forth. In fact, there appears to be only one specific definition of freedom that Republicans have used more than Democrats: freedom as a gift from God. Republicans since 1933 have explicitly stated that freedom is God given nearly five times as often as Democrats have. Just after the aforementioned quote in his 2003 State of the Union, for instance, Bush said, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” Bush has made many similar statements during his time in office; among modern presidents, only Reagan has matched Bush’s willingness to define freedom in this fashion. That the two presidents who emphasized this particular definition of freedom also had uncommonly strong ties to politically engaged religious conservatives is almost surely not a coincidence.

These differences in presidents’ use of freedom by political context and party should not be overstated, since all have been couched in the well worn presidential narrative of freedom and liberty. Still, there is little question that the factors that influence other aspects of American politics, namely public sentiment and partisan ideology, also inform the manner in which our leaders talk about our nation’s foremost political symbols.

Following the 2004 election, citizens in key battleground states were asked for a one-word answer to the question, “What does America mean to you?” Freedom, said roughly half of those asked. If the question were asked of presidents, that total would likely be even higher.

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Rob Willis - 7/6/2007

I'm am always interested in what freedoms the current adminstration have taken away from those who claim such trespasses. What are you no longer free to do that is George Bush's fault?


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/4/2007

What other country has millions of people trying to sneak in every year, Northern Somalia?

Randll Reese Besch - 7/2/2007

The propganda wave is still on when the majority of the masses repeat the the mantra without much substance about such an important and dangerous,to some,thing as personal liberty.
Such ones as the often quoted "most free on earth" even though other countries when examined prove otherwise. See the Nederlands and Canada and even Northern Somalia.
Such admonitions should be anyilzed not simply repeated parrot-like without evidence.
Like Vladimer Putin's slow strangulation of Russian society so does the Cheney-Bush Axis and their slow death of what remains of our freedoms.