Wit and Wisdom of the American Presidents: A Book of Quotations

Wit and Wisdom of the American Presidents: A Book of Quotations

by Joslyn Pine

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"I know only two tunes," said Ulysses S. Grant. "One of them is Yankee Doodle and the other isn't." Jimmy Carter observed: "Whatever starts in California unfortunately has an inclination to spread." And Warren Harding complained: "The White House is a prison. I can't get away from the men who dog my footsteps. I am in jail."
This entertaining, handy little book includes over 400 other memorable quotes, expressed by America's chief executives over the past two centuries, among them Chester Arthur's blunt, "I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damn business," Calvin Coolidge's terse "The chief business of America is business," Dwight Eisenhower's "Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from a cornfield," and George Herbert Walker Bush's "Read my lips, no new taxes."
From George Washington to Barack Obama, these presidential declarations will not only provide public speakers and students of American history with a wealth of useful material, they'll also delight general readers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486110721
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 02/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 1,141,793
File size: 539 KB

About the Author

Editor Joslyn Pine is an expert on the subject of American history and government, particularly in terms of the executive branch.

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Wit and Wisdom of the American Presidents

A Book of Quotations


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11072-1


George Washington

Born February 22, 1732—Died December 14, 1799 1st President, 1789–1797 * Federalist

Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.

Few men have virtue enough to withstand the highest bidder.

At a distance from the theatre of action truth is not always related without embellishment.

I hate deception, even where the imagination only is concerned.

It is not a custom with me to keep money to look at.

I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

[attributed] Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.

Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light.

A slender acquaintance with the world must convince every man that actions, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends; and that the most liberal professions of goodwill are very far from being the surest marks of it.

To contract new debts is not the way to pay old ones.

[Gaming] is the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief.

To persevere in one's duty and be silent, is the best answer to calumny.

When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.

Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals.

Undertake not what you cannot perform, but be careful to keep your promise.

The tumultuous populace of large cities are ever to be dreaded.

Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated.

We ought not to look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.

Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for 'tis better to be alone than in bad company.

Be courteous to all but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence; true friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.

[on taking the oath of office] I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct that may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.

Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.

As the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first to be laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.

There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.

The most sincere neutrality is not a sufficient guard against the depredations of nations at war. To secure a respect to a neutral flag requires a naval force organized and ready to vindicate it from insult or aggression.

If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation.

As the first of everything, in our situation, will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.

[on Washington's appointment as Commander in Chief] As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it.

My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.

[on political parties] However [they] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

My ardent desire is, and my aim has been, to comply strictly with all our engagements, foreign and domestic; but to keep the United States free from political connections with every other country, to see them independent of all and under the influence of none.

There can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate upon, real favors from nation to nation.

The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.

Patriotism ... must be aided by a prospective interest or some reward. For a time, it may of itself push men into action, to bear much, to encounter difficulties. But it will not endure unassisted by interest.

The aggregate happiness of society, which is best promoted by the practice of a virtuous policy, is, or ought to be, the end of all government.

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.

The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of the government.

I never mean, unless some particular circumstances should compel me to do it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law.

[last words] It is well, I die hard, but am not afraid to go.


John Adams

Born October 30, 1735—Died July 4, 1826 2nd President, 1797-1801 * Federalist

Ambition is the subtlest beast of the intellectual and moral field. It is wonderfully adroit in concealing itself from its owner.

Did you ever see a portrait of a great man without perceiving strong traits of pain and anxiety?

The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

Power naturally grows. Why? Because human passions are insatiable.

It is weakness rather than wickedness which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power.

Every project has been found no better than committing the lamb to the custody of the wolf, except that one which is called balance of power.

The executive powers lodged in the Senate are the most dangerous to the Constitution, and to liberty, of all the powers in it. The people then, ought to consider the President's office as the indispensable guardian of their rights.

[to Thomas Jefferson] You are apprehensive of monarchy; I, of aristocracy. I would therefore have given more power to the President and less to the Senate.

Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees, for the people.

The essence of a free government consists in an effective control of rivalries.

In the first place, what is your definition of a republic? Mine is this: a government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one person.

The first of qualities for a great statesman is to be honest. And if it were possible that this opinion were an error, I should rather carry it with me to my grave than to believe that a man cannot be a statesman without being dishonest.

Be not intimidated ... from publishing with the utmost freedom whatever can be warranted by the laws of your country; nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice.

The numbers of men in all ages have preferred ease, slumber, and good cheer to liberty, when they have been in competition.

I would define liberty to be a power to do as we would be done by.

Liberty cannot be preserved without knowledge among people.

The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance than all the property of all the rich men in the country.

And after all that can be done to disseminate knowledge, you can never equalize it.

Liberty, according to my metaphysics, is a self-determining power in an intellectual agent. It implies thought, choice, and power.

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make good use of it! If you do not, I shall repent it in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it!

If there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?

Public virtue cannot exist without private virtue.

The rich are seldom remarkable for modesty, ingenuity, or humanity. Their wealth has rather a tendency to make them penurious and selfish.

As the happiness of the people is the sole end of government, so the consent of the people is the only foundation of it.

[on the Boston Tea Party] The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered, something notable and striking. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible, and it must have [such] important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history.

Let me have my farm, family and goose quill, and all the honors and offices this world has to bestow may go to those who deserve them better and desire them more. I court them not.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.

The die was now cast; I had passed the Rubicon. Swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish with my country was my unalterable determination.

[on the vice-presidency] My country has, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.

No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. He will make one man ungrateful, and a hundred men his enemies, for every office he can bestow.

Being the President was the four most miserable years of my life.

When I was young, and addicted to reading, I had heard about dancing on the points of metaphysical needles; but, by mixing in the world, I found the points of political needles finer and sharper than the metaphysical ones.

You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.


Thomas Jefferson

Born April 13, 1743—Died July 4, 1826 3rd President, 1801-1809 * Democratic-Republican

[on the presidency] To myself, personally, it brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends.

The second office of the government is honorable and easy; the first is but a splendid misery.

If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.

Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.

When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.

[Great Britain is] a pirate spreading misery and ruin over the face of the ocean.

Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.

Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.

Establish the eternal truth that acquiescence under insult is not the way to escape war.

Experience has already shown that the impeachment the Constitution has provided is not even a scarecrow.

If congressmen talk too much, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour.

In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.

It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.

Ignorance of the law is not an excuse in any country. If it were, the laws would lose their effect, because it can always be pretended.

I believe that justice is instinct and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling seeing, or hearing.

No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.

Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding, and should therefore be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties, which may make anything mean everything or nothing, at pleasure.

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.

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

Science is my passion, politics my duty.

I think it is Montaigne who has said, that ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head. I am sure it is true as to everything political, and shall endeavor to estrange myself to everything of that character.

We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new.

A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.

We hold these truths to be self-evident,—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man.... The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

The ball of liberty is not so well in motion that it will roll round the globe.

Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty.

The time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather bed.

If a state expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.

[Education] engrafts a new man on the native stock, and improves what in his nature was vicious and perverse into qualities of virtue and social worth.

History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.

The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.

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

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

It is not by the consolidation, or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution that good government is effected.

If a due participation of office is a matter of right, how are vacancies to be obtained? Those by death are few; by resignation none. [commonly paraphrased as "Few die and none resign"]

I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.


Excerpted from Wit and Wisdom of the American Presidents by JOSLYN T. PINE. Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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