Famous Sayings #178 — ‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’

January 31, 2020

Speak softly and carry a big stick. You will go far.

William Allen Rogers [Public domain], via Wikipedia

This was a post I meant to finish and publish on Sunday, January 26, but after hearing the tragic news about Kobe and Gianna Bryant and seven others that day, I hadn’t the heart to go on with my normal schedule. (You can read my thoughts about the tragedy here.)

Now, I was researching this topic early in 2019, but I had originally decided to postpone this post until January 26, 2020 because of the historical connection to this proverb. Does this proverb have any connection to current events? You bet it does.

Who Is Most Closely Associated with the Proverb ‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’?

Of course, this proverb was popularized by Theodore Roosevelt, who may have first used it in a letter he wrote to Henry L. Sprague that was dated January 26, 1900. That letter contained this line:

Speak softly and carry a big stick. You will go far.

Roosevelt was then the governor of New York and he wrote that letter after he forced the state’s Republican committee to pull its support from a corrupt financial adviser. Roosevelt said that the proverb originated in West Africa, and this was noted by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on April 1, 1900 (“Big Stick ideology”):

His motto, he says, he has taken from the South African people: ‘Speak softly—carry a big stick—and you will go far.’

Roosevelt would go on to repeat the adage, most notably during a visit to the Minnesota State fair when he was vice president on September 2, 1901. Here is one version:

There is a homely adage which runs ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ If the American nation will speak softly and yet build and keep at a pitch of highest training a thoroughly efficient Navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far.

Another version of his speech could be found in the September 3, 1901 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune (which I took from the Star Tribune):

Right here let me make as vigorous a plea as I know how in favor of saying nothing that we do not mean, and 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.

Did This Proverb Really Originate in West Africa?

Well, there is no proof corroborating that claim. There is a chance that Roosevelt made up the saying himself. In that case, him crediting it to West Africans could have been akin to “Confucius say …” (Martin).

What Does ‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick Mean?’

According the Gary Martin, the proverb is used when someone is advised to use caution and nonaggression first; however, that person should have “the ability to carry out violent action if required.” In terms of actual policy, the proverb relates to Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to foreign (and domestic) affairs.

What Is the Big Stick Ideology?

The Big Stick ideology (also known as big stick diplomacy or big stick policy), as described by Roosevelt himself, was “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” Roosevelt’s foreign policy approach had five parts:

  1. Possessing the military capability to gain the attention of the adversary
  2. Acting justly toward other nations
  3. Backing up words with actions
  4. Striking only when prepared to strike hard
  5. Allowing the adversary to save face in defeat

In short, Roosevelt felt that diplomacy was best and that a country (like the United States) only needed to show its might to deter any adversaries (Fung). Roosevelt explained much of this in his “National Duties” speech, giving at the 1901 Minnesota Fair:

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 not 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 an must ever be the prime aim of a self-governing people …

While Roosevelt upheld that it was the duty of the United States to help other nations, he justified the construction of the Panama Canal (which he referred to as the Isthmian Canal in the speech). He also said that while missionaries, merchants, and soldiers may make mistakes and be guilty of wrongdoing, it was still important for stronger nations (like the U.S.) to help weaker nations and free those nations from “savagery and barbarism.”

On domestic policy, Roosevelt believed that it was the duty of the federal government to intervene to help workers and to help businesses fight against monopolies (“Big Stick policy”).

How Does the Proverb ‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’ Apply Today?

In some ways, the proverb does not apply to current United States policy since many of our national politicians don’t really believe in diplomacy. On the other hand, some politicians may still use the proverb while promoting the Monroe Doctrine, which Roosevelt did mention by name in his “National Duties” speech:

This is the attitude we should take as regards to the Monroe doctrine. There is not the least need of blustering about it. Still less should it be used as a pretext for our own aggrandizement at the expense of any other American state. But most emphatically, we must make it evident that we intend on this point ever to maintain the old American position. Indeed, it is hard to understand how any man can take any other position now that we are all looking forward to the building of the Isthmian canal. The Monroe doctrine is not international law, but there is no necessity that it should be …

After assuming the presidency, Roosevelt added his Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine to promote a policy that called for the United States to intervene in Latin America to prevent European expansionism in that region of the world (“Big Stick policy”). But since then, many presidents and cabinet members have expanded the Monroe Doctrine to affect policies that maintain U.S. dominion over Latin American countries (Taylor). Many Latin Americans and U.S. citizens (myself included) detest such policies. A thorough discussion of the Monroe Doctrine is surely needed.

Works Cited

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Big Stick Policy.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 27 December 2017, https://www.britannica.com/event/Big-Stick-policy. Retrieved 31 March 2019.

Fung, Brian. “What Does Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Big Sitck’ Line Really Mean, Anyway?” The Atlantic, 24 September 2012, <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/what-does-teddy-roosevelts-big-stick-line-really-mean-anyway/262579/>. Retrieved 31 March 2019.

History.com Editors. “Monroe Doctrine.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 9 November 2009, Updated 20 September 2019, <https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/monroe-doctrine>. Accessed 31 January 2020.

Martin, Gary. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Phrase Finder, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick.html. Retrieved 31 March 2019.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick | Define Speak softly and carry a big stick at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick. Retrieved 31 Mar 2019.

Taylor, Adam. “What is the Monroe Doctrine? John Bolton’s justification for Trump’s push against Maduro.” Washington Post, 4 March 2019,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/04/what-is-monroe-doctrine-john-boltons-justification-trumps-push-against-maduro/. Retrieved 31 March 2019.

Various Authors. “Big Stick ideology.” Wikipedia. Updated 25 December 2019. Web. Retrieved 25 Jan 2020. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Stick_ideology>.

Various Authors. “Theodore Roosevelt.” Wikiquote, Last Updated 13 Feb 2019, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Theodore_Roosevelt. Retrieved 31 March 2019.

Welter, Ben. “Sept. 3, 1901.” Roosevelt ‘Big Stick’ speech at State Fair.” Star Tribune, 2 Sept 2014, http://www.startribune.com/sept-3-1901-roosevelt-big-stick-speech-at-state-fair/273586721/. Retrieved 31 March 2019.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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