For many of us, it can feel hard to find adequate words to pay tribute to the brave men and women who serve our country. So on holidays dedicated to saluting our troops, it's no surprise many people turn to our greatest orators to seek out inspirational words to honor the day. The below Memorial Day quotes from presidents powerfully and poetically capture the spirit of the holiday.
Memorial Day is often considered the kick-off to summer fun — a day of family barbecues and first trips to the beach. But it’s important that we all take a moment to reflect and remember that the freedom and fun we daily enjoy is something hard-won, and comes to us courtesy of our brave service members, both past and present. Reading these quotes from American presidents — all the way from Thomas Jefferson to Joe Biden — helps to capture the spirit and importance of this national day of reflection.
While feelings around the military may be fraught for some — particularly the pacifists among us, or those who feel conflicted about our country’s military spending — these concerns shouldn’t impact the fact of our troops’ tremendous and undeniable courage and sacrifice. It's the reason we salute them — this May 31, and always.
“Heroism is not only in the man, but in the occasion.” — President Calvin Coolidge
President Calvin Coolidge said these words
during a 1928 address that dedicated a memorial to Colonel William Colvill, a Union colonel in the American Civil War who led the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry in the Battle of Gettysburg. Eight years later, the words still ring true. (Though of course, should be amended to “in the person.”) "In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved." — President Franklin D. Roosevelt
This powerful quote comes courtesy of FDR, from a speech made on Sept. 22, 1936.
"Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” — President Thomas Jefferson
This quote has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but
scholars are divided on its origins. Regardless of whether the third president of the United States said it, these words are as relevant today as they were then. "Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay, but we can honor their sacrifice." — President Barack Obama
President Obama said these words as part of his
Memorial Day Service remarks in 2011. Also notable during his speech? These few sentences: "Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must. We must honor it in our own lives by holding their memories close to our hearts, and heeding the example they set." "For love of country, they accepted death.” — President James A. Garfield “Each of the patriots whom we remember on this day was first a beloved son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a spouse, friend, and neighbor.” — George H. W. Bush Mark Reinstein/Corbis News/Getty Images "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." — President John F. Kennedy “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” — President Bill Clinton “I don't have to tell you how fragile this precious gift of freedom is. Every time we hear, watch, or read the news, we are reminded that liberty is a rare commodity in this world.” — President Ronald Reagan
President Reagan delivered this Memorial Day message on May 26, 1983, leading with: "
Memorial Day is a time to take stock of the present, reflect on the past, and renew our commitment to the future of America." “They do not need our praise. They do not need that our admiration should sustain them. There is no immortality that is safer than theirs. We come not for their sakes but for our own, in order that we may drink at the same springs of inspiration from which they themselves drank.” — President Woodrow Wilson
This beautiful quote comes courtesy of Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 Memorial Day address. What makes it rather remarkable is that it apparently was not even part of a prepared speech, he was simply speaking off the cuff.
"It was the transcendent fortitude and steadfastness of these men who in adversity and in suffering through the darkest hour of our history held faithful to an ideal. Here men endured that a nation might live." — Herbert Hoover
Hoover made these poignant remarks at a Memorial Day address at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on May 30, 1931.
“We have to uphold the honor that you all fought for, the honor and decency of who you are. America is an idea that is stronger than any army, that is bigger than any ocean, and that is more powerful than any tyrant or dictator.” — President Joe Biden
Why not end with a quote from our current President? (And a man who knows what Memorial Day really is all about after losing his son Beau, a veteran who served in Iraq.) These moving words come from a speech made on
Memorial Day in 2019.