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    Theodore Roosevelt uses his famous aphorism "Speak softly and carry a big stick" for the first time

    Theodore Roosevelt Typed Letter Signed as governor of New York. Two pages, 9" x 11.5", Albany, New York, January 26, 1900, on letterhead reading, "State of New York / Executive Chamber / Albany." This original letter - the carbon copy is displayed in the Library of Congress' American Treasures - is addressed to Henry L. Sprague of the "Union League Club, N.Y. City" and contains the first use of one of the most widely quoted expressions from any president: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Roosevelt, who credits a West African proverb for the phrase, applies it to a recent political tussle in the New York State Assembly. The letter reads in full:

    "Your letter of the 25th really pleased me. Of course, I shall not feel real easy until the vote has actually been taken, but apparently everything is now all right. I have always been fond of the West African proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.' If I had not carried the big stick the Organization would not have gotten behind me, and if I had yelled and blustered as [Dr. Charles] Parkhurst and the similar dishonest lunatics desired, I would not have had ten votes. But I was entirely good humored, kept perfectly cool and steadfastly refused to listen to anything save that [Louis] Payn had to go, and that I would take none but a thoroughly upright and capable man in his place. Unless there is some cataclysm, these tactics will be crowned with success. As for the Eveing [sic] Post, Parkhurst and Company, they of course did their feeble best to try to get me to take action which would have ensured Payn's retention and would have resulted therefore in a very imposing triumph for rascality. They have often shown themselves the enemies of good government, but in this case I do not think they are even to be credited with good intentions. They were no more anxious to see dishonesty rebuked than a professional prohibitionist is to see the liquor law decently administered.

    With warm regards,
    Faithfully yours,
    [signed] Theodore Roosevelt."

    As the twentieth century began, the United States was bursting with optimism, vitality, and global influence. Theodore Roosevelt, roused by his recent success during the Spanish-American War, mirrored the nation's optimism and vitality and was elected as a Republican governor of New York. Though his election was backed by the powerful New York Republican boss Tom Platt, the two didn't get along well since Roosevelt proved too unmanageable and unpredictable for the party. The subject of this letter, an incident involving Louis Payn, is one example. As a reform-minded governor, Roosevelt was concerned that Payn, New York's insurance commissioner, was too intimately connected with the insurance industry. The forty-one-year-old Roosevelt refused to reappoint Payn as commissioner and insisted that he be replaced with "a thoroughly upright and capable man." Unfortunately, Tom Platt, who isn't mentioned in this letter, wanted Payn to remain as commissioner. But the governor felt he had the moral high ground and refused to back down, especially after he discovered from a stockholder of the State Trust Company that Payn had received a large "loan" from the company. Roosevelt took his fight to the public and won. Exhilarated by the successful outcome, he wrote this two-page letter to Henry Sprague, one of his Republican allies in the New York Assembly, in which Roosevelt suggested that he had won the tussle with Platt because "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.'" This is the first known use of the phrase by Roosevelt or anyone else, but it went unnoticed by anyone but Sprague.

    Following the incident, Platt, a U.S. senator, spent much of 1900 trying to move TR out of New York politics by promoting him as a vice presidential candidate for McKinley's 1900 Republican presidential ticket. Platt's efforts were successful and the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket was elected in November 1900. Seven months after being sworn in as vice president, Roosevelt used the "West African proverb" publicly for the first time in a speech at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901. One early critic of the speech wrote that the phrase "ought never to be heard again on American soil," but it resonated with the press and public. Three days later, McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt was propelled to the presidency, where he used the aphorism as a guiding principle in his domestic and foreign policy, producing fear among robber barons, corrupt political bosses, and foreign dictators alike. The expression sums up Theodore Roosevelt and the young nation as few have ever done, remaining popular to this day. The letter is slightly age-toned; the typed blue-ink text is clear and vibrant. Roosevelt's signature has moderately faded. Smoothed folds.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    April, 2011
    8th-9th Friday-Saturday
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