“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick”
On September 2, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Minnesota State Fair where he first publicly used the now-famous phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Roosevelt had previously used the phrase in a private letter the year prior when he was governor of New York. In the letter to Henry L. Sprague dated January 26, 1900, Roosevelt expressed his happiness that the New York Republican Committee had revoked its support of a corrupt financial advisor.
Roosevelt wrote, “I have always been fond of the West African proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’” Interestingly, there is no record of this phrase in West African literature, leading some to believe that Roosevelt in fact coined the phrase himself.
A year later, Roosevelt was U.S. Vice President under William McKinley. That September, he made a stop at the Minnesota State Fair to deliver a speech supporting the president’s international policies:
“Right here let me make as vigorous a plea as I know how in favor of saying nothing that we do not mean, and of acting without hesitation up to whatever we say. A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.’ If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible. So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power.
“Let us make it evident that we intend to do justice. Then let us make it equally evident that we will not tolerate injustice being done us in return. Let us further make it evident that we use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good. Such an attitude will be the surest possible guarantee of that self-respecting peace, the attainment of which is and must ever be the prime aim of a self-governing people…
“Barbarism has and can have no place in a civilized world. It is our duty toward the people living in barbarism to see that they are freed from their chains, and we can only free them by destroying barbarism itself. The missionary, the merchant and the soldier may each have to play a part in this destruction, and in the consequent uplifting of the people. Exactly as it is the duty of a civilized power scrupulously to respect the rights of all weaker civilized powers and gladly to help those who are struggling towards civilization, so it is its duty to put down savagery and barbarism. As in such a work human instruments must be used, and as human instruments are imperfect, this means that at times there will be injustices, that at times, merchant, or soldier, or even missionary may do wrong.”
Just four days after Roosevelt delivered this speech, an assassin at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, shot President McKinley. Another eight days later and Roosevelt was suddenly the youngest U.S. president in history.
As president, Roosevelt frequently practiced this ideology. Notable events include ending a coal strike and the blockade of Venezuela; creating the Panama Canal; and negotiating a peace treaty to end the Russo-Japanese War that ultimately earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.
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