When Theodore Roosevelt Urged Americans to “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick”

The speech that Theodore Roosevelt gave at the opening of the Minnesota State Fair in September 1901 wasn’t as famous as “The Man in the Arena,” but it did launch one of his most famous sayings.
Theodore Roosevelt was all about Big Stick Diplomacy.
Theodore Roosevelt was all about Big Stick Diplomacy. / Rykoff Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images (Roosevelt), CSA Images/Getty Images (battleship)

Theodore Roosevelt’s attendance at the 1901 Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis had been headline news ever since he’d accepted the invitation in April. “ROOSEVELT WILL COME,” read one article. “Vice president to inspect Minnesota’s pumpkins and ‘garden sass.’” First, the VP would open the fair with a speech, which The Minneapolis Journal said would “address … the agricultural resources and development of the northwest. The speech will be entirely non-political in character and will be a voicing of Roosevelt’s love for practical affairs and the welfare of the common people.” Then, The Irish Standard wrote, TR would “hold an informal reception ... [and] will review the exhibits.”

At around 11 a.m. on September 2, Roosevelt ascended the fair’s grandstand in front of a crowd of thousands. He began his speech—now known as “National Duties”—by discussing pioneers, telling the crowd, “You whom I am now addressing stand, for the most part, but one generation removed from these pioneers. You are typical Americans, for you have done the great, the characteristic, the typical work of our American life. In making homes and carving out careers for yourselves, and your children, you have built up this state.” 

He spoke of the importance of bold actions, of eschewing a life of ease, and of protecting the worker. And then he dropped what would soon become one of his best-known catchphrases

“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.” 

The Origins of Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

The Minnesota State Fair may have been the first time Roosevelt publicly uttered speak softly and carry a big stick, but it wasn’t the first time he used the phrase: As far as we know, that occurred in 1900, when TR was still governor of New York. 

Senator Thomas Collier Platt
Senator Thomas Collier Platt. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Roosevelt had just triumphed in a battle with Republican party boss Senator Thomas Platt over the fate of Superintendent of Insurance Louis F. Payn. TR wanted him out; Platt did not. Roosevelt told Platt he would name his chosen replacement for superintendent the next day. In a meeting later that day, Platt associate Benjamin Odell tried to convince Roosevelt to change course, which Roosevelt refused to do. “You know it means your ruin?” Odell asked. “Well, we will see about that,” Roosevelt responded. As Roosevelt began to leave the room, Odell acquiesced, saying, “Hold on! We accept. … The senator is very sorry, but he will make no further opposition!” 

Unbeknownst to Odell, Roosevelt had been bluffing—his chosen candidate, Francis J. Hendricks, had not yet accepted when he stood to walk out of the room—but it worked out: Hendricks did accept the following morning, and Roosevelt announced his nomination (which was later confirmed). Of the incident, Roosevelt wrote to a friend, “I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ ”

(Was speak softly and carry a big stick actually a West African proverb? Probably not. At Phrase Finder, Gary Martin writes that he could “find no corroborative evidence for that assertion,” adding, “If it truly was proverbial in 1900 it ought to be easy to find earlier citations of it, but I can find none. Nor is there any known record of the phrase actually being used in West Africa before Roosevelt’s time. … It is certainly possible that he coined the phrase himself.”)

TR might have won that round, but his actions would have consequences: Going toe-to-toe with Platt had almost certainly cost him the chance to run for a second term as governor of New York. Instead, he found himself running for the vice presidency alongside William McKinley in the election of 1900.

McKinley Campaign Poster for 1900 Presidential Election
McKinley Campaign Poster for 1900 Presidential Election. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

According to biographer Edmund Morris, it wasn’t a position Roosevelt particularly wanted. “In the vice presidency I could do nothing,” Roosevelt wrote. “I am a comparatively young man yet and I like to work. I do not like to be a figurehead. It would not entertain men to preside in the Senate … I could not do anything; and yet I would be continually seeing things I would like to do.” 

But it didn’t matter—as Platt would say, “Roosevelt might as well stand under Niagara Falls and try to spit water back as to stop his nomination.” He was nominated, McKinley won, and Roosevelt became vice president. Which was how he found himself on that podium in Minnesota, talking about speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

Four days after that speech, McKinley was shot by an assassin and soon died, and Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States. His catchphrase would soon become diplomacy.

What It Means to Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick 

In his speech at the Minnesota State Fair, Roosevelt explained what he meant when he said we should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Specifically, he advocated that this was the attitude the U.S. should take regarding the Monroe Doctrine, President James Monroe’s 1823 warning that when it came to the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, European nations needed to mind their own business. “Let us make it evident that we intend to do justice,” Roosevelt said:

“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 which [sic] prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good.”

Put another way, Roosevelt’s take on foreign policy involved “carefully mediated negotiation (‘speaking softly’) supported by the unspoken threat of a powerful military (‘big stick’),” according to National Geographic. 

He was able to put his policy to the test in late 1902 amid the Venezuela Debt Crisis. The South American country owed millions to Germany and Great Britain, who had threatened to set up a blockade in its waters; Roosevelt was initially sympathetic to their attempts to collect—so long as they didn’t try to gain any territory in the bargain [PDF], which he trusted Britain wouldn’t do. Germany, on the other hand, was more of a concern.

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II. / Galerie Bilderwelt/GettyImages

But because Venezuela couldn’t afford to pay its debt, it seemed likely that Germany—headed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris referred to as “the most dangerous man in the world”—would try to make a land grab. Rear Admiral Henry Clay Taylor wrote to Roosevelt in a secret memo that “Venezuela … could offer nothing but territory, or she could mortgage her revenue in such a way as to place herself in complete political dependence on Germany. The United States could not allow either of these, and yet Germany’s right to indemnity would be incontestable.”

In Taylor’s view, there were only two options for the U.S.: “Payment of the indemnity taking such security as she can from Venezuela, or war.”

So Roosevelt got to work. There was much going on behind the scenes, but the CliffsNotes version of what happened is this: In an address to Congress, TR announced that the U.S. Navy would run large-scale maneuvers in the Caribbean. Privately, he spoke with German Ambassador Theodor von Holleben and asked him to communicate to Wilhelm that while he was simply running maneuvers, “I should be obliged to interfere, by force if necessary, if the Germans took any action which looked like the acquisition of territory in Venezuela or elsewhere along the Caribbean.”

He gave the Germans 10 days to confirm that they would not attempt to take territory; if no response came, he would send U.S. ships south “to observe matters along Venezuela.” Then he waited.

Crickets from Germany.

Roosevelt and von Holleben met again a few days later, at the ambassador’s request. TR asked point-blank if Germany would accept an arbitration proposal put forward by the president of Venezuela; von Holleben said “no.” In response, Roosevelt made clear that he would invoke the Monroe Doctrine and go to war—and moved his deadline for a response up by 24 hours.

When a mutual friend later assured von Holleben that no, TR was not bluffing, the ambassador transmitted Roosevelt’s message to Kaiser Wilhelm—who, rather than go to war, agreed to arbitration just in time for Roosevelt’s deadline. (The German fleet was greater in number than the American Navy’s at that point, but the fleet was dispersed; the American ships, which had greater firepower, were currently steaming toward the blockade.)

Many of the details of what exactly happened were kept secret until years later. Knowing that Wilhelm was a vain man, Roosevelt wanted it to appear as though the Kaiser had decided arbitration was the wiser course, not that he had been forced into it.

The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

Speaking of the situation in Chicago in April 1903, Roosevelt once again trotted out his favorite proverb and personal mantra. “There is a homely old adage which runs: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,’ ” he said. “If the American Nation will speak softly, and yet build, and keep at a pitch of the highest training, a thoroughly efficient navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far. I ask you to think over this. If you do, you will come to the conclusion that it is mere plain common-sense, so obviously sound that only the blind can fail to see its truth and only the weakest and most irresolute can fail to desire to put it into force.”

In 1904 and 1905, Roosevelt strengthened the Monroe Doctrine in two speeches before Congress. The Roosevelt Corollary, according to a piece from the National Archives, “stated that not only were the nations of the Western Hemisphere not open to colonization by European powers, but that the United States had the responsibility to preserve order and protect life and property in those countries.” Roosevelt said that America, “in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence,” would have to use “international police power.” (As the piece at the National Archives points out, the corollary was kind of ironic: While the Monroe Doctrine sought to keep European powers from intervening in events in the Western Hemisphere, “the Roosevelt Corollary justified American intervention throughout the Western Hemisphere,” which was not, perhaps, something the other countries in the Western Hemisphere wanted.)

Building up the U.S. Navy was one of Roosevelt’s most important passion projects, and he committed to it fiercely. Per the U.S. Naval Institute, “When Roosevelt became president, the Navy had been neglected since the Civil War. … Roosevelt refocused the Navy’s composition and capabilities toward sea control.” He commissioned a number of new vessels and, in 1907, sent 16 battleships, nicknamed “The Great White Fleet,” around the world in a show of U.S. naval power. By the time he left office in 1909, the U.S. Navy had risen from fifth in the world to third. 

Brett Crozier
The USS Theodore Roosevelt. / Handout/GettyImages

Roosevelt would undoubtedly be pleased to know that a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier bearing his name sails the seas today. Its nickname? “The Big Stick.”

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