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Memorable Quotes From 13 Great American Presidents

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I have Masters degrees in National Security & Strategic Studies, Air & Space Studies, and Aeronautical Science. I am interested in history.

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.

— Theodore Roosevelt in The Kansas City Star, 7 May 1918

Memorable Quotes From 13 Great American Presidents

The US has had many outstanding presidents, people of consequence, driven men who did many things for the greater good of our country, and sometimes for the world. Most presidents have been well-read, well-educated and well-spoken. Additionally, during their respective terms as president, and in their lives before and after the presidency, they shared some profound and inspirational thoughts on leadership, democracy and the human condition.

Here in this article, gathered together in one place, are a few memorable quotes from each of 13 of our nation’s greatest chief executives.

#13 - Ronald Wilson Reagan – Republican

Ronald Reagan was the 40th president. He was in office from 20 Jan 1981 to 20 Jan 1989.

Reagan implemented sweeping economic changes, which came to be called Reaganomics, and he played a major role in bringing about an end to the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. [1]

He was an outstanding public speaker who could paint with words his ideas on a canvas so everyone could understand the concepts. Because of this, he was often referred to as The Great Communicator.

Quotes attributed to President Reagan:

The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.

Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out.

No president who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.

— James K. Polk

#12 - James Knox Polk – Democrat

James Polk was the 11th president. He was in office from 4 March 1845 to 4 March 1849.

At the time he was president, Polk was considered the most successful holder of the office since George Washington. Polk set out to acquire the Oregon and New Mexico Territories, as well as California. He also aimed to settle the Texas border dispute. He accomplished all of those goals and is therefore credited with having brought the idea of Manifest Destiny to its logical conclusion.

Quotes attributed to President Polk:

I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close. I will soon cease to be a servant and will become a sovereign.

No president who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.

— Woodrow Wilson

#11 – Thomas Woodrow Wilson – Democrat

Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president. He was in office from 4 March 1913 to 4 March 1921.

Wilson is perhaps most famous for doing an about face on his campaign position of US neutrality, and then leading the US into and through the Great War (World War I). He gets three quotes here because he is credited with several really good ones throughout his term and life. More to the point, though: His “make the world safe for democracy” quote, which he made while giving his go-to-war pitch to Congress in April 1917, is ubiquitous. Ubiquity gets him three.

Quotes attributed to President Wilson:

The world must be made safe for democracy.

There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.

#10 - John Fitzgerald Kennedy – Democrat

JFK was the 35th president. He was in office from 20 January 1961 to 22 November 1963.

JFK served for a relatively short time, but he had an outsized impact on the US and the world. Because he said and wrote a lot of profound and memorable things, he also gets three quotes included here.

We are all lucky that JFK was in the lead as the world made its way to—and, thankfully, back from—the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was also a strong civil rights advocate, promoting inclusive employment policies and banning segregation in federal housing. He likely would have done much more if his life had not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

Here are a few quotes attributed to Jack Kennedy:

Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.

Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.


When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one-gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn't for you. It's for the Presidency.

— Harry S. Truman

#9 - Harry S. Truman – Democrat

Harry Truman was the 33rd president. He was in office from 12 April 1945 to 20 January 1953.

It is hard to fathom the enormity of the moment when Harry Truman found out about the atomic bomb. The sitting president—FDR—had just died, and Truman was sworn in as the new president. Before day’s end, he also learned that there was underway development of an atomic bomb, a project code-named Manhattan. It was not a terribly long time from April, when he found out about the weapon, to August, when he ordered Airmen to drop two of them on Japan. That alone makes Truman a president of significant consequence.

If that was all Truman presided over during his time in office, he would forever be remembered as one of the most influential chief executives ever. But it was far from his only contribution to the greater good. Indeed, he accomplished oh-so-much more in his time at the helm:

“In the remaining 7 1/2 years of his presidency, he also established the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, undertook the Berlin Airlift, supported the establishment of the United Nations and NATO, recognized the newly declared state of Israel, desegregated the armed forces and the federal workforce, and reinforced civilian supremacy over the military.” [2]

By all accounts, Truman was a thoughtful, decisive and influential leader and president.

The following quotes are attributed to Harry S. Truman:

When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one-gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn't for you. It's for the Presidency.

Every political battle I have I fight with everything I’ve got, and when it’s over I get hold of my opponent and we have a bourbon and branch and say, “What can we do for the country?”

#8 - James Spence Monroe – Democratic-Republican

James Monroe was the fifth president. He was in office from 4 March 1817 to 4 March 1825.

The Monroe Doctrine is, of course, the signature achievement of President Monroe. His policy of warning off further European involvement in the Western Hemisphere did much to add stability to world politics. Less well remembered, but equally significant, was the Era of Good Feelings, which coincided with Monroe’s time in office. He engendered a lessening of partisan politics, even appointing to office members of the opposition party. Divisive and bitter partisanship took a back seat for quite some time, and he even tried to do away with party politics altogether. Too bad he didn’t succeed.

Quotes attributed to President Monroe:

It is better to spread trust all around than to hand out money!

Let us by wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties

#7 - James Madison, Jr. – Democratic-Republican

James Madison was the fourth president. He served from 4 March 1809 to 4 March 1817.

James Madison is called the Father of the Constitution because his contributions to the writing of the document were instrumental to the effort, and also because he played such a huge role in the writing and publication of The Federalist Papers. Madison also wrote the first draft of the Bill of Rights.

As president, Madison led the US into the War of 1812 over the issue of British impressment, despite the fact that the relatively young nation was ill-prepared for such a monumental task. The US suffered several major defeats during the conflict, and many D.C. buildings—such as the Capitol and the White House—were attacked and burned to the ground by British invaders during the war.

The US’ convincing win in the Battle of New Orleans served as a turning point in the war and expedited its conclusion. Madison ratified the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, in February of 1815.

Quotes attributed to President Madison:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.

Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

#6 - Dwight David Eisenhower – Republican

Ike was the 34th president. He was in office from 20 January 1953 to 20 January 1961.

President Eisenhower gets three quotes in this essay because he served two terms as president, and also because he led our troops to victory in WWII. “I like Ike.”

Eisenhower made great strides in civil rights in the US, and he also is credited with extricating the US from the Korean war. Additionally, and significantly, Ike demonstrated to those around him and to his successors how to use restraint when it came to the “nuclear” option, which was now a reality for both sides in the burgeoning Cold War world.

Here are a few quotes attributed to Ike:

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong

Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.

Power is not alluring to pure minds.

— Thomas Jefferson

#5 - Thomas Jefferson – Democratic-Republican

Thomas Jefferson was the third president. He was in office from 4 March 1801 to 4 March 1809.

Thomas Jefferson is considered to be the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. His first draft was a “stunning statement of the colonists' right to rebel against the British government and establish their own based on the premise that all men are created equal and have the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” [3]

President Jefferson’s signature accomplishment while in office was the Louisiana Purchase, an 800,000+ square mile land mass bought from the French for $15 million. In any day’s dollars, that is an incredible bargain. States that eventually came out of that deal include: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Here are a couple of succinct but powerful quotes attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

Power is not alluring to pure minds.

I'm a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.

#4 - Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. – Republican

Teddy Roosevelt was the 26th president. He was in office from 14 September 1901 to 4 March 1909.

Teddy gets a pass, too, meaning I’ll mention his most famous quote – “speak softly but carry a big stick,” and then also list two more. He had a lot of inspirational things to say, our Teddy, including what I think is one of my favorite quotes of all time, often referred to as "The Man in the Arena."

Roosevelt was energetic and energized to "do" during his terms in office. Among his most memorable achievements is establishment of a system of National Parks and protected lands, as well as securing the rights for and beginning construction of the Panama Canal.

He also put the US front and center as a leader on the world stage by helping negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese war. This set the scene for US involvement in WWI nearly a decade later.

Quotes attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Be with a leader when he is right, stay with him when he is still right, but leave him when he is wrong.

— Abraham Lincoln

#3 - Abraham Lincoln – Republican

Honest Abe was the 16th president. He served his country as president from 4 March 1861 to 15 April 1865.

“Despite his lack of executive experience, [President Lincoln] maintained the Union and Constitution while helping to destroy slavery.” [4]

There is scarcely a figure in history that can have so much of such great consequence said about him in so few words.

We’ve all heard it before: Abe Lincoln suffered defeat after defeat, lost election after election, contest after contest, but persisted nevertheless. Eventually, though, with his presidential election win in 1860 he found himself on the road to becoming one of the greatest, most influential and important figures in American history.

His Emancipation Proclamation and his Gettysburg Address both contain powerful words that acted like weapons in the war on slavery, a war that was finally won, but only after Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer in 1865.

A couple quotes that are attributed to President Lincoln:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Be with a leader when he is right, stay with him when he is still right, but leave him when he is wrong.

Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

#2 - Franklin Delano Roosevelt – Democrat

FDR was the 32nd president. He was in office from 4 March 1933 until his death on 12 April 1945.

FDR is another one who probably deserves an essay of his own. His “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” quote is ubiquitous, is one nearly everyone has heard, even if they didn’t know it was FDR who said it.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ably led the US through the Great Depression and into WWII. His first two terms were consumed by the former, and the Second World War dominated his final years in office right up until his death.

FDR was one of the most consequential figures of the whole of the 20th century, crafting and implementing the New Deal, conducting his Fireside Chats and preparing for entry in WWII even as there was heavy resistance to US involvement in the conflict.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor unexpectedly, the US was ready to take on a major role in both theaters of war. FDR alone deserves credit for that truth. From the 8th of December 1941, when Congress declared war and until his death in the final year of the war, FDR was at the helm for the US, dealing routinely with Stalin and Churchill to craft and execute a decisive, Germany-first-then-Japan war-winning strategy.

Quotes attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education…

#1 - George Washington – Independent

George Washington was the first president. He served in that capacity from 30 April 1789 to 4 March 1797.

Washington served as president reluctantly but honorably. His selfless interests were in long-term preservation of the Union and strengthening the power of the Constitution. In his waning days in office, he authored a Farewell Address warning of the dangers of a two-party political system and its inherent jealousies and evils. He also emphasized that the US would be strongest if it remained as a single Union.

Washington was a humble, approachable and credible leader. His humility led him to turn down an offered third term in office, fearing it would set a terrible precedent if he should die in office.

Quotes attributed to George Washington include the following:

When one side only of a story is heard and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly.

Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness.

Great Words from Great Leaders

From the Father of our Country; to the Father of the Constitution (and creator of our Bill of Rights); to the author of our celebrated Declaration of Independence; to the man who did more than any other to bring the Cold War to an end…and to all the other great presidents in between. These are some of their wise, profound and thoughtful words. Some are words to live by each and every day. Some are worthy of pondering at length for their applicability in time of need. All were spoken by thoughtful men who earned and respected the honor bestowed upon them by the people: the privilege to serve as President of these United States.

End Notes

[1] If it weren’t for Ronald Reagan, I never would have flown the B-1 bomber during my Air Force career. As part of his increase in military spending, he revived in 1981 the program canceled in 1977 by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

[2] https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article241928796.html

[3] https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffdec.html

[4] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/education/presidentialtimeline.htm


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 greg cain

Comments

greg cain (author) from Idaho, USA on January 13, 2021:

Sha Sha - thanks for the great comment! The 20th Amendment, also known as the "Lame Duck Amendment," moved the inauguration date back from March to January, and FDR was the first to be sworn in with this new law in effect. The Amendment did lots of other things, too, but in the main it put Congress back to work sooner in the new year, and it established the new transition dates so there wouldn't be so much passage of time between election results and swearing in of the new president. Great question...I had to do my research to answer it.

Good week, my friend. Be well, be safe, be good!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on January 11, 2021:

Wow, Box! So many wonderful quotes from honorable men who put the people of this great country first. I love the quotes regarding power that several of the greats spoke. If only our current POTUS had the same mindset. He is all about power and to hell with the American people. I could go on and on, but will refrain. I do have to say, though, that the quotes that really strike a chord in today's environment are Lincoln's " Be with a leader when he is right, stay with him when he is still right, but leave him when he is wrong" and Teddy Roosevelt's "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

Excellent, excellent article, my friend! Let's hope Joe Biden joins these great past presidents in doing what's right and putting the people, democracy, and freedom first.

BTW, when did the Presidency turn from March 4th to January 20th?

greg cain (author) from Idaho, USA on January 11, 2021:

Thanks, Ruby! Yes, I agree with you. It shan't be too many more days before we are on a different path. Be well, be safe and have a good week.

greg cain (author) from Idaho, USA on January 11, 2021:

Bill - yes, indeed, turn the page! I didn't include Nixon because this list was intended to be a rough approximation of the 13 top presidents in history. There's always room for debate, of course, and I wouldn't fall on my sword over this lineup...but I also wouldn't include Nixon for reasons I think are probably obvious. That said, however, the one thing I have always admired and appreciated about Nixon was this: when the feces hit the spinning blades, he did what he believed was best for his country. Indeed, in his own way I think he always did what he thought best for the country. But when he resigned, it was a selfless act, designed to put country before his own personal vanity and desires. I always respected him for that.

greg cain (author) from Idaho, USA on January 11, 2021:

Hi Liz - yes, I think there's really not much comparison. The folks whose quotes appear in this article were all selfless, faithful servants bent on preserving the Constitution and the union of all the states. That stands in stark contrast to what we are seeing today.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on January 11, 2021:

This was great! I think we are on the road to recovery, and we once again can be proud Americans. Well done!

greg cain (author) from Idaho, USA on January 11, 2021:

Thanks, Eric. I learned quite a bit during the course of this project, too. It is inspiring to read about and learn more about all the great work some of our presidents have done.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 11, 2021:

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Hey, I don't see any quotes here from Nixon???? Now I'm just being snarky! Loved the quotes. I love that brighter days are ahead. Enough said about the current mess. As Bob Seger has said, turn the page!

Liz Westwood from UK on January 11, 2021:

As I have read this interesting and thoughtful article, I cannot help but make the comparison between these former presidents and the current incumbent!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 11, 2021:

What a brilliant compilation. I fully learned from and enjoyed it. Thanks

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