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Theodore Roosevelt Advocates American Entry into World War I and Revisits His Foreign Policy Maxim:
“Speak softly and Carry a big stick”
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Roosevelt called for national preparedness considering the world situation, referencing Pancho Villa and Mexico, Germany and the war in Europe, and the sinking of the Lusitania. In this address nearly a year prior to the United States’ entry into World War I, Roosevelt made his opinion clear about the cost of isolationism: “The result of our inaction, of our sloth and timidity, has been that every nation in the world now realizes our weakness and that no nation in the world really believes either in our disinterestedness or our manliness.

Theodore Roosevelt’s first known use of his “big stick” philosophy was in a January 26, 1900 letter as governor of New York. Writing to Assemblyman Henry L. Sprague, Roosevelt credited the West African proverb as pivotal to his success in New York politics. During his presidency, from 1901-1908, it was a central tenet of his policies. We had the honor of selling the original 1900 letter a few years ago. This 1916 speech is only the second time we’ve seen in the market a Roosevelt signed document with the text of this most famous saying.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Printed proof sheets sent to TR for his approval, of his “Address Delivered to the Illinois State Bar Association,” delivered at the Hotel La Salle in Chicago on April 29, 1916. Returned with more than 42 penciled corrections in his hand and Roosevelt’s Autograph Inscription Signed at top of the first page: “Dear Mr. McCh’ny, [Nathan MacChesney, President of the Illinois Bar Association] Here is the speech, with a few merely verbal corrections, sincerely, Theodore Roosevelt.” 8 pp., 7 x 24 in. The speech, as edited here, was printed in The Proceedings of the Illinois State Bar Association (Chicago Legal News Co., 1916), 761-84.

Inventory #24383       Price: $45,000


Mr. President, and my Hosts of the Illinois Bar Association: I felt it a particular privilege to accept your invitation because I was glad to have a chance, as our Methodist brethren say, to show why it is borne in on me to testify (laughter) to precisely this type of audience in this part of our common country; to address an audience of men who by advantages, by training, by practice, must inevitably play a leading part in the community; and to address such an audience in Lincoln’s state, in the heart of our great country. (Applause.) And, friends of the Bar Association, questions of elective and legislative machinery, even questions of internal reform, sink into insignificance when we are confronted by the great question as to whether we are to be a nation at all or a mere knot, a tangle, of squabbling nationalities. (Laughter and applause.) Lincoln once said, speaking in this State, that the country could not endure half slave and half free; and nowadays America can not endure half hyphenated and half not. (Laughter and applause.)

Again, such questions are necessarily of small account while in international matters all moral sanctions and standards of conduct have vanished into chaos, unless we prepare ourselves to defend the lives of our citizens and the honor and vital interests of the nation as a whole. (Applause.) … A year and three quarters have passed since the opening of the great war. At the outset our people were stunned by the vastness and terror of the crisis. We had been assured by many complacent persons that the day of great wars had ended, that the reign of violence was over, that the enlightened public opinion of the world would prevent the oppression of weak nations. To be sure there was ample proof that none of these assurances were true, and far-seeing men did not believe in them. But there was good excuse for the mass of the people being misled.

Now, however, there is none. War has been waged on a more colossal scale than ever before in the world’s history; and cynical indifference to international morality, and willingness to trample on inoffensive, peace loving peoples who are also helpless or timid, have been shown on a greater scale than since the close of the Napoleonic Wars of a century ago. Alone of the great powers we have not been drawn into this struggle … I abhor unjust and wanton war. All that I honorably could do would be done to try to keep this country out of war. But I would rather see this country go to war than sink into the dreadful condition where the people do not know that there are things even worse than war. (Applause.)

If the United States navy had been mobilized within a week of the great war, if there had been practice on the seas in fleet formation with submarines that went under water (laughter) - quite a useful thing in a submarine, by the way - with battleships and battle cruisers, if that had been done do you think there would have been any temptation to any power to sink the Lusitania? Not much! (Applause.)

I once used a phrase, to sum up our proper foreign policy:— ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ There was a good deal of laughter over that phrase. But it expresses a pretty sound policy all the same. (Applause.) Remember, that I was President seven years and a half and that I never spoke with wanton harshness of any nation. I always spoke softly, I was always just as nice and polite as any man could be (laughter and applause). But I carried a big stick! (Applause.)

We will do well to remember that China, pacifist China, anti-militarist China has not only been helpless to keep its own territory from spoliation and its own people from subjugation, but has also been helpless to exert even the most minute degree of influence in favor of right dealing among other nations.

Full Transcript of Roosevelt’s Speech

Roosevelt’s Edits

In addition to minor grammatical corrections including punctuation marks, and a number of cross-outs, Theodore Roosevelt also made 42 handwritten edits, transcribed in bold here:

(page 1): “The most foolish thing we could do is to sit together, to come together in meetings and tell one another how great we are, and then wait till we go up against the rifles and cannot in order to find out that our words amount to nothing unless we are able to back them by deeds …

(page 3): “The courts events of the last twenty-one months, including especially the events of the last month …

(page 5): “We then went to war with Spain over Cuba. The war cost ^us less than three hundred lives … A month has couple of months have gone by since we undertook to get Villa … we permitted the Mexicans …”

(page 6): “By George, Gentlemen, I want to say I am proud of you. I didn’t know how you were going to take this. To be frank I did not overmuch care; For I intended to tell you, whatever no matter what you thought of it, the things which in my judgment ought to be said. But I tell you, my heart thrills as I hear the way you receive my words. It makes me realize what I already believed I knew previously I believed that you were sound. Now I know you are sound. I know that the west would will stand for the American people and the American nation … I will go out from this room with my head and heart up, doubly larger eager to preach Americanism and preparedness …”

Discussing the training of young men for the military: “It could be done in the schools and then four to six months when the boys leave the schools … With such a system, which would make all of our own trained, train all of our own men alike, we would be guaranteed forever against the kind of conflict which is known as a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. We would all fight when the word need arose, and we would never fight wantonly …

(page 7): “And the Government while encouraging all industry, should so control it as to secure one of the things that the government encouraged should be used to secure should be what has been secured for labor in Germany, proper living and working conditions ^ for the wage workers and provisions for insurance, compensation against sickness and accident and old age.” Also on this page, TR has changed “trained for this particular work” to “developed,” “the system of an educational order, the small, educational order” to “the,” and “fitness of purpose” to “fixity.”

(page 8): “the desire to comfort flatter ourselves by words that mean nothing.”


Ex- Estate of Malcolm S. Forbes.


On delicate newsprint paper. The top page has three paper clip stains. Tiny separations at some of the folds have been professionally mended; minor chipping along the edges. Overall, in very good condition.

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