Timeless quotes for Presidents Day

Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. (United States Archives)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Until 1885, there were only four national holidays recognized within the United States, according to history.com — Christmas Day, New Year's Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

That year, a fifth federal holiday was added, commemorating the birth, life and service of George Washington, the Revolutionary War hero and first president of the nation. Originally observed every Feb. 22 (Washington's birthday), in 1968, Congress moved the holiday now more commonly known as Presidents Day to be the third Monday of February.

Since taking the first presidential oath of office on April 30, 1789, Washington has been joined by 45 other men, whose words and actions continue to echo through time and history. In recognition of Washington and his successors, here are four timeless quotes from U.S. presidents, including the critical context needed to appreciate their significance.

George Washington

Just as a father might wish to impart his greatest wisdom to his children before his passing, in September 1796, the childless George Washington shared his parting council with the nation before stepping aside and allowing others to occupy the office of the presidency.

Warning Americans of "the spirit of party" (partisanship) and "pretended patriotism," Washington counseled:

"(The spirit of party) unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind … It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against the other, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. … A fire not to be quenched, it demands uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume."

The Federal Hall statue of George Washington overlooks the New York Stock Exchange, Monday, June 7, 2021.
The Federal Hall statue of George Washington overlooks the New York Stock Exchange, Monday, June 7, 2021. (Photo: Richard Drew, Associated Press)

Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799, weeks before the dawn of the coming century. His words and council live on and remain as relevant as ever for a generation of Americans familiar with riots, insurrection and the "fire" of partisanship.

James Madison

Often called the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison insisted the Constitution "was not the work of a single brain," but "the work of many heads and many hands."

In addition to his work as one of the primary authors of the U.S. Constitution, Madison also was one of the framers of the country's Bill of Rights and, next to Alexander Hamilton, the indispensable author of the Federalist Papers. Madison became the nation's fourth president.

The mark Madison left on the nation is as timeless as the documents he helped author, envisioning a nation where "enlightened patriotism," where education and knowledge were freely available to all, would empower the American people to secure and preserve the liberties promised by the nation's founding documents.

Writing to William T. Barry Madison, the president said, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Can freedom long endure without education and knowledge? Madison didn't think so.

Ulysses S. Grant

"In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten. Then he who continues the attack wins."

The exact origin of this quote is somewhat elusive, but Hyrum Ulysses Grant — known more commonly as Ulysses S. Grant — is generally credited as its original utterer. But more than speaking the words, Grant lived this principle on the battlefield and in his political and personal life.

As the former supreme commander of the Civil War's victorious Union Army, and subsequently as president of the United States, Grant attained a level of fame and affluence that had made him an extremely wealthy man — at least until May 1884 when he learned that, thanks to the fraudulent practices of his business partner Ferdinand Ward, his wealth had been wiped out.

Writing to a friend Grant lamented, "(This) morning I thought I was worth a great deal of money, now I don't know that I have a dollar."

A month later, Grant noticed a stinging sensation in his throat. Then in October of that same year he was diagnosed with throat cancer that was incurable.

Impoverished, and given a cancerous death sentence, few would have blamed the former President for considering himself "beaten." But with his family now facing poverty and a life without him, Grant battled against the clock to write his memoirs penning, at times, 10,000 words in a single day — a remarkable feat for a man who considered himself to be a "poor writer."

In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten. Then he who continues the attack wins.

–President Ulysses S. Grant

Partnering with Mark Twain for their publication, Grant finished his memoirs on July 20, 1885 — a mere three days before his death. As the great outstanding account of the American Civil War, Grant's memoirs were enormously successful.

The year following his death, Twain delivered a royalty check from the publisher to the president's widow, Julia Dent Grant, for the amount of $200,000 (approximately $7 million to $8 million in modern currency). It was the largest royalty check written up to that time, according to the National Park Service.

To share or author a good quote is one thing. But to embody that same quote throughout your life to your final days is something else entirely. With his words and example, Grant reminds Americans to never give up, even when you might feel "beaten."

Abraham Lincoln

America's 16th president, President Abraham Lincoln is (nearly) universally listed as the greatest president of all time, endlessly quoted and famed for his wisdom and stories.

The trouble with Lincoln is selecting just one quote and ensuring it is properly attributed to the man credited with preserving the Union during its greatest crisis.

The easy choice would be his timeless address given on the Gettysburg battlefield, or his remarkable second inaugural address — brimming with hope, faith, charity and religious expression; at times, reflecting such pious fervor, one could easily be forgiven for confusing it with a Sunday sermon, rather than a political address.

This undated illustration depicts President Abraham Lincoln making his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., Nov. 19, 1863.
This undated illustration depicts President Abraham Lincoln making his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., Nov. 19, 1863. (Photo: Library of Congress via Associated Press)

Even though Lincoln grew up in a stringent Baptist household, historical accounts tell us he was never baptized, remaining unaffiliated with any organized religion throughout his life — the only president in history to do so, according to history.com. He guarded his faith rather closely, saying "as little as possible," according to his law partner of 18 years, William Herndon, and his private presidential secretary John Nicolay.

And yet, later in life, Lincoln was almost prayerful in both his public and private communications, speaking freely of divine justice and God's providence — briefly flirting with supporting amending the U.S. Constitution to recognize deity.

When asked about his faith while living in Springfield, Illinois, William Herndon recounted Lincoln telling a story about a man named Glenn. Speaking at church, Glenn had stated simply, "When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that's my religion."

By assimilating Glenn's simple words and making them his own, Lincoln did more than skillfully answer the question of his elusive and little-understood religious views. With his story, Lincoln may have come closer than anyone in describing universal faith for both believer and unbeliever.

For a nation of diverse views, persuasions, passions and faiths — is anything more universally applicable or timeless than the words, "When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that's my religion"?

It takes time for quotations to withstand the slow erosion of history and human memory. These quotes come from past centuries and U.S. presidents who served during some of the nation's most critical chapters.

Their words remain as relevant as ever.

What presidential quotes do you think will endure the passage of time? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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