Presidential Quotes

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Words from each American president

Compiled by David Johnson

Note: Dates indicate term of office.

Choose a president:
George Washington (1789–1797) John Adams (1797–1801)
"To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."
—Jan. 8, 1790

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."

"Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder."

"Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth."
"A pen is certainly an excellent instrument to fix a man's attention and to inflame his ambition."

"I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessing on this house (the White House) and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof!"

"Let every sluice of knowledge be open and set a-flowing."

"The happiness of society is the end of government."
Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) James Madison (1809–1817)
"One man with courage is a majority."

"That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves."

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
"The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted."

"The problem to be solved is, not what form of government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect."

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."
James Monroe (1817–1825) John Quincy Adams (1825–1829)
"National honor is a national property of the highest value."

"The American continents . . . are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers."

"A little flattery will support a man through great fatigue."
"May our country be always successful, but whether successful or otherwise, always right."

"America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government."

"Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost."
Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) Martin Van Buren (1837–1841)
"The individual who refuses to defend his rights when called by his government, deserves to be a slave, and must be punished as an enemy of his country and friend to her foe."

"I know what I am fit for. I can command a body of men in a rough way; but I am not fit to be President."

"Internal improvement and the diffusion of knowledge, so far as they can be promoted by the constitutional acts of the Federal Government, are of high importance."
"It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn't."

"I tread in the footsteps of illustrious men, whose superiors it is our happiness to believe are not found on the executive calendar of any country."

"As to the Presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."
William Henry Harrison (1841) John Tyler (1841–1845)
"The prudent capitalist will never adventure his capital . . . if there exists a state of uncertainty as to whether the Government will repeal tomorrow what it has enacted today."

"A decent and manly examination of the acts of the Government should be not only tolerated, but encouraged."

"But I contend that the strongest of all governments is that which is most free."
"Popularity, I have always thought, may aptly be compared to a coquette—the more you woo her, the more apt is she to elude your embrace."

"Wealth can only be accumulated by the earnings of industry and the savings of frugality."

"Here lies the body of my good horse, 'The General.' For twenty years he bore me around the circuit of my practice, and in all that time he never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same!"
James Knox Polk (1845–1849) Zachary Taylor (1849–1850 )
"With me it is exceptionally true that the Presidency is no bed of roses."

"Public opinion: May it always perform one of its appropriate offices, by teaching the public functionaries of the State and of the Federal Government, that neither shall assume the exercise of powers entrusted by the Constitution to the other."

"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."
"For more than half a century, during which kingdoms and empires have fallen, this Union has stood unshaken. The patriots who formed it have long since descended to the grave; yet still it remains, the proudest monument to their memory. . ."

"It would be judicious to act with magnanimity towards a prostrate foe."

"The idea that I should become President seems to me too visionary to require a serious answer. It has never entered my head, nor is it likely to enter the head of any other person."
Millard Fillmore (1850–1853) Franklin Pierce (1853–1857)
"It is not strange . . . to mistake change for progress."

"An honorable defeat is better than a dishonorable victory."

"The man who can look upon a crisis without being willing to offer himself upon the altar of his country is not for public trust."
"We have nothing in our history or position to invite aggression; we have everything to beckon us to the cultivation of relations of peace and amity with all nations."

"The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rock of the Constitution."

"The revenue of the country, levied almost insensibly to the taxpayer, goes on from year to year, increasing beyond either the interests or the prospective wants of the Government."
James Buchanan (1857–1861) Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865)
"To avoid entangling alliances has been a maxim of our policy ever since the days of Washington, and its wisdoms no one will attempt to dispute."

"The ballot box is the surest arbiter of disputes among freemen."

"There is nothing stable but Heaven and the Constitution."
"You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

"If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."

"Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"
Andrew Johnson (1865–1869) Ulysses Simpson Grant (1869–1877)
"If the rabble were lopped off at one end and the aristocrat at the other, all would be well with the country."

"Honest conviction is my courage; the Constitution is my guide."

"The goal to strive for is a poor government but a rich people."
"I have never advocated war except as a means of peace."

"My failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."

"The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times."
Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1877–1881) James Abram Garfield (1881)
"Nothing brings out the lower traits of human nature like office seeking."

"He serves his party best who serves the country best."

"It is now true that this is God's Country, if equal rights—a fair start and an equal chance in the race of life are everywhere secured to all."
"I have had many troubles in my life, but the worst of them never came."

"We can not overestimate the fervent love of liberty, the intelligent courage, and the sum of common sense with which our fathers made the great experiment of self-government."

"Whoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all industry and commerce."
Chester Alan Arthur (1881–1885) Stephen Grover Cleveland (1885–1889)
"Good ballplayers make good citizens."

"If it were not for the reporters, I would tell you the truth."

"Men may die, but the fabrics of our free institutions remain unshaken."
Sept. 22, 1881
"A man is known by the company he keeps, and also by the company from which he is kept out."

"Above all, tell the truth."

"It is the responsibility of the citizens to support their government. It is not the responsibility of the government to support its citizens."
Benjamin Harrison (1889–1893) William McKinley (1897–1901)
"No other people have a government more worthy of their respect and love or a land so magnificent in extent, so pleasant to look upon, and so full of generous suggestion to enterprise and labor."

"Lincoln had faith in time, and time has justified his faith."

"We Americans have no commission from God to police the world."

"The disfranchisement of a single legal elector by fraud or intimidation is a crime too grave to be regarded lightly."
"That's all a man can hope for during his lifetime—to set an example—and when he is dead, to be an inspiration for history."

"Unlike any other nation, here the people rule, and their will is the supreme law. It is sometimes sneeringly said by those who do not like free government, that here we count heads. True, heads are counted, but brains also . . ."

"In the time of darkest defeat, victory may be nearest."
Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) William Howard Taft (1909–1913)
"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."

"Speak softly and carry a big stick."

"The only man who makes no mistake is the man who does nothing."
"The intoxication of power rapidly sobers off in the knowledge of its restrictions and under the prompt reminder of an ever-present and not always considerate press, as well as the kindly suggestions that not infrequently come from Congress."

"Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick."

"Next to the right of liberty, the right of property is the most important individual right guaranteed by the Constitution . ."
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921) Warren Gamaliel Harding (1921–1923)
"Some people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know am an American. America is the only idealistic nation in the world."

"We grow great by dreams. All big men are dreamers."

"If you want to make enemies, try to change something."
"Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government, and at the same time do for it too little."

""My God, this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble with my enemies . . . but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights."

"Ambition is a commendable attribute without which no man succeeds. Only inconsiderate ambition imperils."
John Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929) Herbert Clark Hoover (1929–1933)
"The business of America is business."

"I have never been hurt by anything I didn't say."

"Character is the only secure foundation of the state."
"Peace is not made at the Council table or by treaties, but in the hearts of men."

"A splendid storehouse of integrity and freedom has been bequeathed to us by our forefathers. In this day of confusion, of peril to liberty, our high duty is to see that this storehouse is not robbed of its contents."

"Absolute freedom of the press to discuss public questions is a foundation stone of American liberty."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933–1945) Harry S. Truman (1945–1953)
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

"A good leader can't get too far ahead of his followers."

"Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort."
"You can not stop the spread of an idea by passing a law against it."

"We need not fear the expression of ideas—we do need to fear their suppression."

"A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties."
Dwight David Eisenhower (1953–1961) John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961–1963)
"America is best described by one word, freedom."

"I never saw a pessimistic general win a battle."

"There is nothing wrong with America that the faith, love of freedom, intelligence and energy of her citizens cannot cure."
"The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly."

"And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

"If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity."
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963–1969) Richard Milhous Nixon (1969–1974)
"A president's hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right."

"You ain't learnin' nothin' when you're talkin'."

"For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. . ."

"If government is to serve any purpose it is to do for others what they are unable to do for themselves."
"A man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed one of life's mountaintop experiences. Only in losing himself does he find himself."

"What kind of nation we will be, what kind of world we will live in, whether we shape the future in the image of our hopes, is ours to determine by our actions and our choices."

"I like the job I have, but if I had to live my life over again, I would like to have ended up a sports writer."

"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you. Those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."
Gerald Rudolph Ford (1974–1977) James Earl Carter, Jr. (1977–1981)
"We . . . declared our independence 200 years ago, and we are not about to lose it now to paper shufflers and computers."

"Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go."

"A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have."
"The best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation."

"Our American values are not luxuries but necessities—not the salt in our bread, but the bread itself. Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad—greater than the bounty of our material blessings."

"We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles."
Ronald Wilson Reagan (1981–1989) George Herbert Walker Bush (1989–1993)
"America is too great for small dreams."

"We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And that makes us special among the nations of the earth."

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
"If anyone tells you that America's best days are behind her, they're looking the wrong way."

"The United States is the best and fairest and most decent nation on the face of the earth."

"Don't try to fine-tune somebody else's view."

"I want a kinder, gentler nation."
William Jefferson Clinton (1993–2001) George Walker Bush (2001–2009)
"There is nothing wrong in America that can't be fixed with what is right in America."

"If you live long enough, you'll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you'll be a better person. It's how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit."

"We need a spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together. If we have no sense of community, the American dream will wither."
"Recognizing and confronting our history is important. Transcending our history is essential. We are not limited by what we have done, or what we have left undone. We are limited only by what we are willing to do."

"If you don't feel something strongly you're not going to achieve."

"We will bring the terrorists to justice; or we will bring justice to the terrorists. Either way, justice will be done."
Barack Obama (2009–)
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

"We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it."

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