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

It’s President’s Day, and I see that it has been five years since the most popular Ethics Alarms President’s Day post was published. That one, from 2011, reminds us of the ethics wisdom and leadership acumen of the remarkable men who have served their country in the most challenging, difficult, and ethically complicated of all jobs, the U.S. Presidency.

In the middle of a campaign season littered with some disturbingly unethical candidates, it seems especially appropriate to re-post that entry now….with some updates. In 2011, I left out three Presidents, including the current one. Now all are represented, most of them well.


Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States of America:


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.”

Millard Fillmore: “Let us remember that revolutions do not always establish freedom. Our own free institutions were not the offspring of our Revolution. They existed before.”

Franklin Pierce: “There’s nothing left . . . but to get drunk.” [No, it’s not an ethics quote. It’s just a sad quote, from a man whose spirit was crushed by tragedy before he ever reached the White House. Pierce didn’t have the strength of character to rise above his personal despair and do his duty. That doesn’t make him a bad man, just one who was unfit for leadership.]

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.”

Bill 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.”

Barack Obama: “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”


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

15 thoughts on “Encore! Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

  1. “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
    C. S. Lewis

  2. I think George W. Bush echoed Douglas MacArthur’s words in his address: (“Duty, Honor, Country”). Not that it maters. They’re still worth paying attention to.

  3. Wilson’s quote is very telling about the specific type of a disaster his presidency was, ‘Tell me what is right and I will fight for it.’. He lacked a strong basis or intuition for moral reasoning, but was willing to fight for what others thought was right.

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