Presidents’ Day Special: Presidents’ Last Words

Once we approached peak-presidential politics season, my history posts took a back seat. However, on Presidents’ Day, it feels like we can, just for a moment, ignore this election and instead look back at those who have won elections of years past.

A year ago today, I ranked our presidents. Today, I’m providing color to some of those presidents’ last words. Enjoy.

George Washington (1732-1799), 1st President (1789-1797)

The father of our country (and 14th most influential figure in Western history) lived a productive 67 years before a snowy, wet December inspection of his plantation led to a sudden and debilitating chest and throat illness, a condition likely hastened by five pints of bloodletting. One physician, the delightfully named Dr. Dick, suggested a tracheotomy, but two other doctors understandably voted against the responsibility of puncturing George Washington’s neck.

The President struggled against death. His final words were nearly the courageous, “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” However, an ensuing, sensible conversation about his burial preferences replaced the moment. Once it finished, he let slip his last two words, which, symbolically, described not only his career, but the trajectory of the new country:

“‘Tis Well.”

John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd President (1797-1801)

Adams lived to be an ancient 90, making him the longest-lived president until Ronald Reagan passed him in 2001.

The date of Adams’s death is among the most notable in presidential history. A co-author and signer of the Declaration of Independence, he died on July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the document’s big day. (Kind of.) He had supported and befriended the document’s primary author, Thomas Jefferson, until the two became political enemies in the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800. Jefferson, Adams’s own vice president, triumphed over his boss in the heated Election of 1800, forcing Adams into early retirement.

As other founding fathers dropped off in the 50 years following the Declaration’s signing, Adams and Jefferson became two of the last survivors of this hallowed group. Though in their old age they rekindled their friendship through a series of letters (which is, if I might say, adorable) they developed a sort of unofficial rivalry to outlast the other. Shortly before passing away on the 50th anniversary, Adams’s last words are said to be, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

However, little did he know…

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826!), 3rd President (1801-1809)

Jefferson had died mere hours earlier on the same day!

Understanding the momentous anniversary, three deathbed witnesses report he first asked the date, and upon learning it was the 50th anniversary of the document he wrote to announce America’s independence, he uttered, “Is it the Fourth? I resign my spirit to God, my daughter, and my country.”

The founding fathers: they’re just like us.

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 7th President (1829-1837)

Surrounded by loved ones, Jackson said, “I hope to meet each of you in heaven. Be good, children, all of you, and strive to be ready when the change comes.”

Then someone reminded him of the Trail of Tears, and he said, “Welp, I hope to meet you somewhere else then.”

William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), 9th President (March 4-April 4, 1841)

Our shortest-tenured president, Harrison famously developed pneumonia as a result of his long inauguration speech in a cold DC rain storm. With death imminent just one month into his presidency, he called to his deathbed Vice President John Tyler, who was about to become the first veep to assume the office upon the death of the president, and delivered instructions.

“I understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”

Tyler nodded before proceeding to accept resignations from Harrison’s cabinet, receive an expulsion from the Whig Party, and face impeachment proceedings from the House.

James K. Polk (1795-1849), 11th President (1845-1849)

To his wife: “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

I’m not crying. You’re crying.

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), 12th President (1849-1850)

Our second president to die in office (and with the third-shortest tenure), Taylor’s final words before dying from a stomach ailment were, “I regret nothing, but I am sorry to leave my friends.”

I think he should have regretted consuming the bad fruit and milk that gave him that ailment, but that’s just me.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President (1861-1865)

As his wife, Mary Todd, held his hand in the balcony of Ford’s Theater, she asked her husband if their theater companion would judge them for such public affection.

“She won’t think anything about it,” he replied. It’s a tender moment from our greatest president.

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), 22nd and 24th President (1885-1889, 1893-1897)

Cleveland offered one of the great reflections, a sentiment we hope all our presidents share: “I have tried so hard to do right.”

Unfortunately, at that he failed. His decision to successfully seek a second, non-concurrent term has plagued our presidential counting ever since. So selfish.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President (1901-1909)

Roosevelt died peacefully in his sleep — not even a bullet could take down ‘ole Teddy — and so his last line came the evening before. Spoken to his valet, one of our great presidents requested, “Put out the light.”

The symbolism!

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), 29th President (1921-1923)

His wife had been reading a flattering op-ed about him while he lay in bed recovering from a heart attack. She stopped to fluff his pillows and make him more comfortable, then he told her, “That’s good. Go on, read some more.” Minutes later, his heart failed him.

I’m learning this for the first time. I’m pretty sure I’d now like to end each of my courses with the same line to my students. “That’s good. Go on, read some more.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd President (1933-1945)

Our longest-serving president battled health complications for much of his adult life. He died from one such complication: a cerebral hemorrhage.

“I have a terrific headache,” he reported. That sounds rough, so, in my mind, I like to include an exclamation point to match FDR’s trademark optimism.

“I have a terrific headache!”

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th President (1961-1963)

“Who’s that guy with a gun behind the grassy knoll?”

Just kidding.


Happy Presidents’ Day! Back to politics soon.

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