Theodore Roosevelt had a way with words. Over his lifetime, the eminently quotable president and author popularized many witty turns of phrase. And though he wasn’t fond of swearing, Roosevelt didn't always speak softly, either—he was capable of delivering a brutal insult when he felt it was appropriate (though usually he saved his irritation for letters and didn't deliver the insult to his enemy’s face). Here are just a few of them.
1. “An amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains.”
This insult was leveled at an anonymous Supreme Court Justice who dared to cross Roosevelt.
2. “A well-meaning, pin-headed, anarchistic crank, of hirsute and slab-sided aspect.”
Said of the populist senator from Kansas, William Alfred Peffer, who was indeed hairy, tall, and lean.
3. “The shifty, adroit, and selfish logothete in the White House.”
According to historian Edmund Morris, in 1915 Edith Wharton had asked Roosevelt to visit Europe and report on what was happening to the French in World War I. But Roosevelt proclaimed that he would only go when he could fight, which he considered unlikely under President Woodrow Wilson, whom Roosevelt said “cannot be kicked into war.” The former president didn't have kind words for Wilson's supporters, either; he called them “flubdubs and mollycoddles.”
4. “A cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”
When he wrote this, Roosevelt was insulting President Benjamin Harrison, who had appointed Roosevelt as a reform commissioner because he owed TR a favor. Harrison quickly came to regret it: Soon after Roosevelt was appointed, he investigated Indianapolis Postmaster William Wallace … Harrison’s best friend.
5. “[A] little emasculated mass of inanity.”
Roosevelt said this of novelist Henry James. James, for his part, said that Roosevelt was “dangerous,” and “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding Noise.”
6. “The most intolerably slow of all men who ever adored red tape.”
This isn’t the nicest thing to say about one of your colleagues—in this case, one of TR’s fellow civil service commissioners (and Civil War veteran), Charles Lyman. According to Lyman’s Men of Mark in America entry, published in 1906, “While Mr. Roosevelt's work and attention were largely given to the investigation of abuses and violations of the law and rules, and to the education of public opinion in favor of the reform, through public addresses and the press, Mr. Lyman's work was almost wholly administrative and constructive, his purpose and effort being to establish the reform on a sound and conservative basis and to develop it according to the more obvious and pressing needs of the public service.”
7. “A professional yodeler, a human trombone.”
Said of William Jennings Bryan, then secretary of state to Woodrow Wilson.
8. “That leprous spot upon our civilization.”
Roosevelt didn’t have kind words for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, which dared “[portray] me as attacking labor when I enforce the law as regards Miller in the Printing Office,” Roosevelt wrote to Harrison Gray Otis in 1903. Earlier, the paper had published an interview in which Roosevelt supposedly called the paper’s coverage of the lead up to the Spanish-American War “most commendable and accurate.” The paper’s coverage was actually full of inaccuracies, and according to Roosevelt, he never gave that interview—and loudly denied those words of praise.
9. “Puzzlewit,” “Fathead,” “Brains less than a guinea pig.”
Roosevelt reserved some of his harshest words for his hand-picked successor. Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had a falling out; eventually, after challenging Taft for the Republican nomination (saying, “I'll name the compromise candidate. He'll be me. I'll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform”), Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912 as a member of the Progressive party, a.k.a. the Bull Moose party, and that’s when the gloves came off.
And in case the guinea pig reference seems random, Roosevelt once explained that “Just as machinery can be expressed in terms of horsepower, so some intellect can be expressed in terms of guinea pig power,” and that certain accusations against him “can only be heeded by men with brains of about three-guinea-pig power.” After which the St. Louis Dispatch opined, “Col. Theodore Roosevelt has further enriched the language which so many of his phrases now adorn by producing the following conjunctive description: ‘Three-guinea-pig-power brain.’ This is considered vastly superior to Woodrow Wilson’s ‘single track mind’ phrase, which had a brief vogue.”
10. “A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him.”
Another insult aimed at Taft.
11. “The true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.”
According to Merriam-Webster, a blatherskite is “a person who blathers a lot.” In this case, Roosevelt was referring to Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams, who served as the minority leader of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 until 1908. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris noted that Roosevelt's “contempt for Jefferson was matched only by his worship of the autocratic Alexander Hamilton.”
12. “He is evidently a maniac, morally no less than mentally.”
TR was a man of morals, and he used these harsh words in reference to his brother, Elliott Roosevelt, who had an affair out of wedlock that resulted in a pregnancy. In his autobiography, TR wrote, “Moreover, public opinion and the law should combine to hunt down the ‘flagrant man swine’ who himself hunts down poor or silly or unprotected girls.”
13. “[A] hypocritical haberdasher … An ill-constitutioned creature, oily, but with bristles sticking up through the oil.”
Said of Postmaster General John Wanamaker, after Wanamaker refused to intervene when Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul (more on him in a bit!) had “dismissed Hamilton Shidy for treachery and insubordination,” according to Morris. Shidy had testified against Paul in corruption proceedings.
14. “About as thorough-paced a scoundrel as I ever saw. An oily-Gammon, church-going specimen.”
Here, Roosevelt was calling Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul a fatty ham in addition to a scoundrel. (Paul eventually resigned in 1889.)
15. "Too small game to shoot twice."
16. “He seems to have a brain of about eight-guinea-pig-power ... it is useless to have a worthy creature of mutton-suet consistency like the good Sir Mortimer.”
Written in a letter to Whitelaw Reid. Sir Mortimer Durand was a shy and formal British Ambassador to the United States from 1903 to 1906 (he also lent his name to the Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan). The diplomat was a huge fan of Roosevelt; Cecil Spring Rice wrote that “My chief (Durand) thinks Teddy R. the greatest man in the world and has treated me with immense respect since I let on that I correspond with Teddy. I tell him stories and he listens open-mouthed.”
But Durand couldn’t keep up with Roosevelt, either in conversation or physically. Once, when the two went for a walk, Durand recounted in his diary that Roosevelt “made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand.” Yup, that sounds like TR!
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.