Theodore Roosevelt has a Big Stick

by zunguzungu

The most famous Rooseveltian phrase (and he was a quotable dude) is the slogan “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” As Gail Bederman points out in Manliness and Civilization (in a passage unfortunately not Google books-able), it’s such a cheap shot to note the phallic resonance of that phrase that we almost don’t want to. But we also sort of do: when a manly man like Roosevelt talks about big sticks, he’s talking about big sticks, ya know?

But one of the interesting things about that phrase is that our first record of his using it (and only his first use), in a letter to an ally in the NY state senate, turns out to attribute the phrase to a “west African proverb.” I would love to know where he’s getting it from, how exactly he’s thinking through its West African provenance; hopefully I’ll be able to find out. But that’s the last time he mentions it as having an African origin, as far as I can tell; after that, he calls it an “old adage,” a “homely old proverb” and a “homely proverb.”  Given how pervasive (and for Roosevelt, how problematic) is the conventional cliché/stereotype of African masculine, shall we say, endowment, there’s something fascinatingly suggestive in how this ultra-phallic imagery of big sticks begins with an African origin only to swiftly lose it, as it comes to be the official slogan of a great white man president:

In a letter to Henry Sprague in 1900:

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’”

National Duties,” 1901:

“A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick–you will go far.’”

The Monroe Doctrine,” 1903:

“There is a homely old adage which runs: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’”

America and the World War,” 1915

“One of the main lessons to learn from this war is embodied in the homely proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

I’ve also come across an Irish attribution from the American Magazine, 1910 (maybe the Irish have big sticks too?):

“In a happy moment some years ago, Mr. Roosevelt quoted the old Irish saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The press was delighted. The “big stick” part sounded picturesque. So the “speak softly” part of the sentence was promptly amputated, and for seven years the big stick was waved on the front page, on the editorial page, in the sporting section and the Sunday editions.

And in 1917, in “Muncy’s Magazine,” Lawrence Abbot expanded on the Irishness of the phrase, by implication:

“Early in his Presidential career he uttered one of those epigrammatic phrases for which he has become famous. ” Speak softly, but carry a big stick,” he said. The “big stick” half of this phrase caught the public fancy, and many people, forgetting that he put speaking softly first, have pictured him as a sort of glorified Irishman carrying a shillalah in a universal Donnybrook Fair, joyously hitting every head he saw.”

Of course, no one has ever found any source from which Roosevelt might have taken the proverb; you’d think, if it was such a hoary old saw, we’d have some kind of record of its having been used before Roosevelt, and (as far as I can tell), we don’t. I’m pretty positive he just made the thing up (which makes his initial decision to attribute it to a “West African” proverb and his subsequent decision to retract the attribution all the more interesting).