Sunday, September 02, 2007

September 2, 1901:

"Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick"

Among other things, President Theodore Roosevelt is associated with the line, "Speak softly, but carry a big stick." It's unclear whether TR came up with it himself, or, as he claimed in a letter to New York Assemblyman Henry L. Sprague dated January 26, 1900 -- when TR was governor of New York -- that it was a "West African proverb." Roosevelt was a well-read man, and perhaps he picked it up in a now-forgotten volume that may or may not have been too accurate in recounting African proverbs.

In any case, TR used it in 1900 in reference to political struggles he'd recently had within the narrow world of New York State politics. But the phrase was too good not to use again -- Roosevelt, as an author himself, surely appreciated that -- and it turned up again on September 2, 1901. Now he was Vice President Roosevelt, speaking to an audience at the Minnesota State Fair. The speech, as to be expected, was in support of the McKinley's administration's international policies. No one knew that in less than two weeks, Roosevelt would be president.

"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," Roosevelt said that early September day in Minnesota. "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 which 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..."

No comments: