avatarJanice Harayda



Who Wrote At A Higher Level, Abraham Lincoln Or Barack Obama?

I was shocked when I ran books by presidents through the ‘readability statistics’ checker on Microsoft Word

Barack Obama at a White House computer / ObamaWhiteHouse.archives.gov

Who wrote at a higher level, Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama? Thomas Jefferson or George W. Bush? And how do the reading levels of their books or speeches compare with those of bestselling novels?

Answers to questions like these are easy to find if you run presidents’ books or speeches through the Microsoft Word spell-checker.

When the Word spell-checker shows you the results, you see the Flesch-Kincaid grade level at the bottom of the column of numbers that appears on your screen. (If you don’t see it, search Microsoft Word Help for “display readability statistics” or for an online tutorial that tells you how to display those.) You can also see the reading level of your own writing this way.

In U.S. schools, each grade level roughly corresponds to an age. Children typically start kindergarten at age 5 and graduate from high school, 12th grade, at 17. They reach ninth grade — the first year of high school — at about age 14, 10th grade at 15, 11th grade at 16.

So if Word says Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has a reading level of Grade 10.9, you know it’s written at the reading level of an almost-16-year-old.

Currier and Ives lithograph with Thomas Jefferson at far left / Library of Congress

I grew curious about such statistics when Mitch Albom had a string of №1 bestsellers in novels like The Five People You Meet in Heaven and — even by pop-fiction standards — his books seemed dumbed-down.

To test my impressions, I typed part of his For One More Day onto a new document page and ran the Word spell checker. It confirmed my instinct: The book was written at a third-grade level.

That made me wonder when Presidents Day rolled around: Were U.S. presidents writing at a similarly low level? I used Word to calculate the reading levels of the presidents’ books, if these were easily available, and their best-known speeches if not.

Here are the results:

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage Grade 12 Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid Grade 12 Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Four Freedoms” speech Grade 11.2 Ronald Reagan, An American Life Grade 11.1 Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe Grade 11.1 Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address Grade 10.9 George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep Grade 10.8 Bill Clinton, My Life Grade 8.2 Gerald Ford, A Time to Heal Grade 8.1 Lyndon B. Johnson “Why Are We in Vietnam?” speech Grade 7.3 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Abigail Adams, July 1, 1787 Grade 5.3 Barack Obama, first inaugural address, Grade 8.3

[Update: David Lumber (David Lumber) just ran the numbers on Trump: Here’s his report: “Just for fun I took a big chunk of the text of Trump’s 1/6 speech prior to the insurrection, copied it into a Word doc, and ran the checker on it. I got 4.4 Grade level.” Thank you, David!]

Here’s how I got those numbers: I entered 305 words from each book, beginning on page 24, because the first chapter of a book often doesn’t represent the whole. A typical book chapter has about 20 pages, so I started on page 24. And because a paragraph or two may not represent the whole, either, I entered 305 words, or more than a page, which usually has about 250–300 words. When I used a speech, I entered the whole speech.

This survey showed that George Bush wrote in A Charge to Keep — what, you’ve forgotten it? — at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson did in a letter to Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. Bush also wrote at higher level than Bill Clinton did in My Life and LBJ did in his “Why Are We in Vietnam?” speech at Johns Hopkins University.

But Jefferson comes out ahead if you give him credit for writing the Declaration if Independence, as historians and the U.S. government generally do. It’s written at the level of Grade 12.

Of course, presidents have speechwriters who do at least a draft of their speeches and ghostwriters who help with their books. They share the credit for their reading levels with those literary aides.

But government and other historians agree that although Jefferson had advice from a committee, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He deserves extra credit for something else: He did it with a quill pen.

Jan is an award-winning critic and journalist. She has been the book critic for a large newspaper and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. In her stories, she generally follows Associated Press style, which doesn’t use an apostrophe in Presidents Day.

© 2024 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

You might like another of my stories that mentions Barack Obama:

Presidents Day
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