Presidential Last Words

Presidents die just like the rest of us. Depending on the character of the person, a dying president may have been firmly resolute, intensely practical, or simply resigned. Sometimes, the basics matter most as the end nears. 

  • Grant wanted a glass of water.
  • Theodore Roosevelt asked that a light near his bed be turned off. 
  • Abraham Lincoln laughed. He was watching a well-known comedic play, Our American Cousin.

Perhaps the most poignant last words belong to Woodrow Wilson, the World War I president, who was shattered by a stroke. 

  • Wilson said, “I am a broken piece of machinery. When the machine is broken… I am ready.”

In the case of Grover Cleveland, the words mirrored the character of this serious, conscientious man. 

  • Cleveland, the president who successfully led the nation through the worst depression prior to the great crash of 1929, said, “I have tried so hard to do right.”

Approaching death represents one last opportunity to put one’s affairs in order. The vast majority of America’s presidents were men who took both public and private duties very seriously. This is reflected in the last words of many of our chief executives.

  • Our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, said, “I hope to meet you all in heaven. Be good children, all of you, and strive to be ready when the change comes.”  
  • Zachary Taylor, a former general known as “Old Rough and Ready,” declared, “I am about to die. I expect the summons very soon. I have tried to discharge all my duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.”  
  • President William Henry Harrison was delirious at the time of his death. Believing that he was speaking to his vice president John Tyler, Harrison remarked, “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”

Since death can be an all-consuming experience for one who is dying, some presidents just reported on their condition as the end approached. 

  • In the midst of dying from a cerebral hemorrhage, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said simply, “I have a terrific headache.” 
  • Benjamin Harrison asked plaintively, “Are the doctors here? Doctor…my lungs.” 
  • While this is now less common than in the past, some people’s last experience in life is terrible pain. James A. Garfield, who lingered for more than 80 days after being shot in 1881, said to his chief of staff, “Oh Swaim, there is a pain here. Swaim, can’t you stop this? Oh, oh, Swaim.” 
  • Just prior to experiencing a stroke that would prove fatal, Richard Nixon called out, “Help!”

Some presidents were at peace when they died. 

  • John Quincy Adams’ last words were, “This is the last of earth. I am content.” 
  • Dwight David Eisenhower, who died at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., put it succinctly after affirming his love for his family and nation, saying: “I want to go. I’m ready to go. God take me.”

As incredible as it seems, some presidents were allowed to slip away, their last words unrecorded. Among those on this list are the consequential Harry Truman; Franklin Pierce, who is widely considered a disgrace; and two presidents generally thought of as “middle of the road,” William Howard Taft and Gerald Ford. What might they have said?