A few exceptions aside, one doesn't become president of the United States without having a way with words. And a small army of speechwriters is available to help out once a president is in office. So it's hardly surprising that American presidents have produced some impressive, memorable turns of phrase over the years.
The quotations below are mostly from the period when the speaker or writer was actually holding office as president, but not exclusively. In a few cases, they're from before or after an individual's time in office, ranging from sweeping moral pronouncements to more intimate expressions of feeling. Regardless of context, the quotes emphasize a certain strength of personality - gumption or chutzpah, if you will.
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Grover Cleveland is the only US president to have served two nonconsecutive terms (1885-1889, and 1893-1897). In the interim term, he was defeated by Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison.
Reputed for honesty and a willingness to work pragmatically across the aisle, Cleveland angered some within his own party when he opposed a high protective tariff in his first term.
He was advised that such a stance could harm his chances of reelection (as, in fact, it did). His response was the following:
What's the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?
You might be familiar with the story of how Theodore Roosevelt was shot before giving a speech, then went on to give the speech anyway. The year was 1912, and Roosevelt was running for president, despite having stepped aside for William Howard Taft in 1908. No longer the Republican nominee, Roosevelt ran on the "Bull Moose" ticket.
While campaigning in Milwaukee, he was shot by saloonkeeper John Schrank while en route to give a speech. The bullet was slowed by the text of the speech in his pocket, and Roosevelt was not badly harmed, as he explained to his audience:
Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet - there is where the bullet went through - and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I can not make a very long speech, but I will try my best.
And now, friends, I want to take advantage of this incident and say a word of solemn warning to my fellow countrymen. First of all, I want to say this about myself: I have altogether too important things to think of to feel any concern over my own death; and now I can not speak to you insincerely within five minutes of being shot. I am telling you the literal truth when I say that my concern is for many other things. It is not in the least for my own life. I want you to understand that I am ahead of the game, anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way. I have been able to do certain things that I greatly wished to do, and I am interested in doing other things. I can tell you with absolute truthfulness that I am very much uninterested in whether I am shot or not. It was just as when I was colonel of my regiment. I always felt that a private was to be excused for feeling at times some pangs of anxiety about his personal safety, but I cannot understand a man fit to be a colonel who can pay any heed to his personal safety when he is occupied as he ought to be occupied with the absorbing desire to do his duty.
Roosevelt did not win the election of 1912, and the bullet stayed in his body for the rest of his life.
Among several long correspondences carried on by John Adams throughout his life was one with his son, John Quincy Adams, who, like his father, was president of the US for a single not entirely successful term. In a letter of 1816, when Adams was long since retired and his son was eight years away from his own go at the White House, Adams meandered through a few different topics, beginning with family genealogy and moving on to more philosophical questions, including the following passage:
For Sixty Years I have neglected all Sciences but Government and Religion. The former I have, for Several Years passed by in despair, the latter Still occupies my Thoughts, I have all my lifetime, Studied Religions, Irreligions and no Rereligions as much as my contracted means and opportunities would permit; I have read within two years, Grim in 15 Volumes, Tucker in Seven and nine Volumes in twelve of Dupuis. No Romances I ever read, have entertained me So much.
My Conclusion from the whole is “Universal Tolleration [sic]” Let the human Mind loose. It must be loose; it will be loose.” Superstition and Despotism cannot confine it.
George Washington's passing came with shocking swiftness. On December 12, 1799, he was out on horseback, supervising farm work at Mt. Vernon. Before midnight on the 14th, he had passed.
In the interim, what had initially seemed just a cold rapidly worsened. Several doctors were summoned to administer treatments - which, if not actively making Washington worse, certainly didn't help him. In addition to prescribing emetics that would induce vomiting, they repeatedly bled him, taking out some 40% of his total blood volume.
It cannot have been easy for the physically imposing Washington to adjust so swiftly to the realization that his life was at an end. But he met the situation with his celebrated stoicism. Late in the afternoon of his last night on Earth, Washington said to one of his attending physicians, Dr. James Craik:
Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go; I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it; my breath can not last long.
About five hours later, Washington was gone.
In WWII, the Allied incursion of France was organized by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, a multinational military partnership headed by the US and UK. As its commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower outranked the field commanders from his own country and others - including British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The famously egotistical Monty chafed under Eisenhower's command, and their relationship was often tense.
This tension came to a head in September 1944, during the preparations for Operation Market Garden, Montgomery's ambitious plan to establish a bridgehead onto the Rhine via the Netherlands with a vanguard of paratroopers. Montgomery hoped the operation could carry him all the way to Berlin, but Eisenhower ordered more limited strategic objectives. General Omar Bradley described a meeting in Brussels between the two men a week before the operation kicked off:
Monty, waving a sheaf of their latest messages, began denouncing Ike's strategic decisions and directives in the strongest possible terms. His language was so insubordinate that Ike was compelled to interrupt. He leaned forward, put his hand on Monty's knee and said, "Steady, Monty! You can't speak to me like that. I'm your boss." Monty cooled and said, "I'm sorry, Ike."
As it turned out, Operation Market Garden was not even able to achieve the more modest goals set for it, much less a strike against Berlin before the end of 1944. The conflict would go on for another seven months.
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In January 1863, Abraham Lincoln was looking for yet another general to command the Army of the Potomac. He had fired George McClellan for failing to pursue the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia vigorously enough, and Ambrose Burnside after the debacle at Fredericksburg in December 1862. For Burnside's successor, Lincoln settled on Gen. Joseph Hooker, who had distinguished himself as a corps commander at Antietam and earned Burnside's ire by constantly criticizing his superior officer. Burnside wanted Hooker out, but Lincoln instead gave Burnside the boot.
A New York Times correspondent quoted Hooker as saying that "nothing would go right until we had a dictator." (He also called Lincoln an "imbecile.") Hearing this report, Lincoln composed a letter to the general after offering him the position of commander of the Army of the Potomac. The letter read, in part:
I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.
Unfortunately, the general did not achieve that military success. He was defeated by Lee at Chancellorsville, and the command passed to George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac in its victory at Gettysburg two months later.