Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

In commemoration of President’s Day, Ethics Alarms presents the ethics wisdom of the remarkable men who have served their country in the most challenging, difficult, and ethically complicated of all jobs, the U.S. Presidency.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States:

George Washington: “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.”

John Adams: “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.” 

Thomas Jefferson: “On great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of law, when the public preservation requires it; his motives will be a justification…”

James Madison: “No government any more than any individual will long be respected without being truly respectable.”

James Monroe: “The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.”

John Quincy Adams: “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

Andrew Jackson: “One man with courage makes a majority.”   (Attributed)

Martin Van Buren: “No evil can result from its inhibition more pernicious than its toleration.”

William Henry Harrison: “There is nothing more corrupting, nothing more destructive of the noblest and finest feelings of our nature, than the exercise of unlimited power.”

John Tyler: “I can never consent to being dictated to.”

James K. Polk: “There is more selfishness and less principle among members of Congress than I had any conception of, before I became President of the U.S.”

Zachary Taylor: “It would be judicious to act with magnanimity towards a prostrate foe.”

James Buchanan: “Next in importance to the maintenance of the Constitution and the Union is the duty of preserving the Government free from the taint or even the suspicion of corruption. Public virtue is the vital spirit of republics, and history proves that when this has decayed and the love of money has usurped its place, although the forms of free government may remain for a season, the substance has departed forever.”

Abraham Lincoln: “I do the best I know how, the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing it to the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me will not amount to anything. If the end brings me out all wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Andrew Johnson: “You try to force me to do a dishonorable act, contrary to the law as I see it, and against my conscience, and rather than do your bidding, I’ll suffer my right arm torn out of its socket!”

Ulysses S. Grant: “If men make war in slavish obedience to rules, they will fail.”

Rutherford B. Hayes: “No person connected with me by blood or marriage will be appointed to office.” 

James A. Garfield: “A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil.”

Chester A. Arthur: “The extravagant expenditure of public money is an evil not to be measured by the value of that money to the people who are taxed for it.”

Benjamin Harrison: “The bud of victory is always in the truth.”

Grover Cleveland: “There is no calamity which a great nation can invite which equals that which follows a supine submission to wrong and injustice.”

William McKinley: “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.”

Theodore Roosevelt: “No man is justified in doing evil on the grounds of expedience.”

William Howard Taft: “No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.”

Woodrow Wilson: “Tell me what is right and I will fight for it.”

Warren G. Harding: “There is something inherently wrong, something out of accord with the ideals of representative democracy, when one portion of our citizenship turns its activities to private gain amid defensive war while another is fighting, sacrificing, or dying for national preservation.”

Calvin Coolidge: “Character is the only secure foundation of the state.”

Herbert Hoover: “When there is a lack of honor in government, the morals of the whole people are poisoned.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt: “If you treat people right they will treat you right… ninety percent of the time.”

Harry Truman: “A person who is fundamentally honest doesn’t need a code of ethics.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Leadership involves persuasion, and conciliation, and education and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That is the only kind of leadership I know or believe in or will practice.”

John F. Kennedy: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

Lyndon Johnson: “Evil acts of the past are never rectified by evil acts of the present.”

Richard Nixon: “It’s fundamental in politics and it’s a matter of intuition—trust. If the people don’t trust a man, it doesn’t matter much what he’s done or says.”

Gerald R. Ford: “Tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time.”

Jimmy Carter: “I’ll never tell a lie. I‘ll never make a misleading statement.”

Ronald Reagan: “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.”

George H. W. Bush: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

William J. Clinton: “Let us all take more responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country.”

George W. Bush: “Leadership to me means duty, honor, country. It means character, and it means listening from time to time.”


My apologies to the fans and admirers of Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce for omitting them from the list. It is not a reflection on their ethics, but rather on my research skills: I could not locate suitable quotes by them. (If you know of one, please let me know.)

President Obama, of course, is ineligible, as the holiday honors past Presidents, and his best quote may be yet to come. But if you want his best to date, in my opinion, go here.

[Special thanks to Dorothy Mataras for the William Henry Harrison and Warren G. Harding quotes.]

22 thoughts on “Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

  1. An amazing list. I especially like the one from Taft. (His grandson was my boss at the Pentagon, and was a man of serious character). I admire the result of your work, even while I mourn the loss of Washington’s birthday: he was our greatest, and one we should know about and honor.

  2. Suggestions:

    There is nothing more corrupting, nothing more destructive of the noblest and finest feelings of our nature, than the exercise of unlimited power.” — William Henry Harrison quote

    “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.” — Millard Fillmore quote

    “The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based on experience, that you can fool all of the people all of the time” — Franklin Pierce Adams quote

    “There is something inherently wrong, something out of accord with the ideals of representative democracy, when one portion of our citizenship turns its activities to private gain amid defensive war while another is fighting, sacrificing, or dying for national preservation.” — Warren G. Harding quote

    “In the great fulfillment we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation.” — Warren G. Harding quote

  3. Thanks Dorothy! I had seen the Harrison quote, and thought it was borderline, but now that I see it again I think it fits.

    Millard’s quote is an issue quote more than ethics, but it’s the best one I’ve seen. It’s not quite right for the list.

    I almost made the Franklin Pierce Adams mistake myself—that’s a great quote, but the source is the writer born in 1880, not the sad N.H. President he was named after.

    Both Harding quotes are good—I had seen the second, and I’m not sure why I rejected it, but the first one you found is better. Thanks again.

  4. But THE TR quote is one that’s inspired me and lots of others:
    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.

  5. I once did an ethics course based on TR (in the Badlands!)…this is indeed the ultimate Teddy character quote, though less an ethics quote because it could apply to unethical warriors too.

  6. Some excellent quotes, Jack. My favorites among the ones I hadn’t seen before are those of of Jefferson, Grant, Garfield, T. Roosevelt, Harding and Kennedy. Harding’s and Kennedy’s are of particular note in the present day state of affairs. The most profound, I think, was Garfield’s. It’s one that every man should take to heart when defining moral courage. It’s said that Garfield was perhaps the most intelligent man ever elected to the Presidency. What a bitter event that he was deprived of the opportunity to prove it.

      • I heard that story about him, Jack. He was also a Union general with a good war record and a man noted for his integrity in times when integrity was at a premium… like now! It took just one lunatic to deprive the nation of a potentially great leader when we needed one.

        It’s interesting to note that Chester A. Arthur, who was a political hack added to the ticket to appease the NYC political machine, rose above his shady past as President and defied his former bosses to do what was right for the nation. Maybe he relearned a few things from Garfield’s example.

        • I’m a big fan of Chester A….who was no dummy either. And he’s right up there with Truman as someone who exceeded all expectations when called upon to serve his country.

          Garfield, as you may know, was essentially killed by his doctors. The wound was not mortal, and the doctors gave him deadly infections by trying to locate it and remove it, which they never did.

  7. I was thinking of Truman when I posted that. There is a definite comparison. And what you say about the ineptitude of Garfield’s doctors is not only true, but historically recorded. In trying to locate the round inside his body, those doctors used a crude device that you might call one of the first metal detectors ever. They wasted a lot of time with it, ignoring a young doctor who pointed out that the bedsprings made the entire attempt pointless! A single, qualified general practioner could probably have saved Garfield’s life with prompt action.

  8. Here is one which is not even from a President, but about which I think frequently, and would be so grateful if I could live up to it:

    “And the world will be better for this: that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove to his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars.”

    It’s a lyric by Joe Darion from Man of La Mancha, of course, and to my mind more inspiring than anything I’ve ever seen in “holy scripture”.

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