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John Quincy Adams

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Where can we turn when the dialogue from, or about, our presidents seems to fall short? Fortunately, we can look to the imperfect presidents of the past, whose ideas and inspiration have, for years, proved much more than “just words,” and whose notions about who — and what — we can or should be has helped provide a compass for the country.

James Garfield might be a good place to start: “We can not overestimate the fervent love of liberty, the intelligent courage and the sum of common sense with which our fathers made the great experiment of self-government.”

Garfield also proferred, “If wrinkles must be written on our brow, let them not be written on our heart. The spirit should never grow old.”

Thomas Jefferson suggested a way to deal with growing personal frustration: “When angry, count 10, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”

How about a few words from Rutherford B. Hayes who said, “He serves his party best who serves the country best.”

Martin Van Buren advised, “It’s easier to do a job right, than to explain why you didn’t.”

How about a quote from Honest Abe?

“My dream,” Lincoln said, “is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last, best hope on Earth.”

Or this one: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

Here’s another Lincoln quote: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Turning to the other side of the Civil War conflict that threatened to tear the nation apart, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, said, “I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, that our only hope is in God.”

John Quincy Adams’ inspirational suggestion was, “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.”

Chester A. Arthur said, “Men may die, but the fabrics of our free institutions remain unshaken.”

Harry S. Truman indicated, “No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking … is freedom.”

Describing a country whose ancestors came from so many other nations, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

FDR’s cousin Theodore Roosevelt said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Teddy also suggested, “Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.”

John F. Kennedy, who saw his fair share of crises during a presidency cut short, said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”

John Tyler offered these amusing and humbling words: “Here lies the body of my good horse, The General. For 20 years he bore me around the circuit of my practice, and in all that time he never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same.”

William Howard Taft pointedly said, “Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick.”

An Eisenhower quote might be a fitting way to end: “America is best described by one word, freedom.”