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Sept. 3, 1901: Roosevelt 'Big Stick' speech at State Fair

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Government Updated: September 2, 2014 - 6:08 PM
 
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt delivered his “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” speech at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 2, 1901. He was 42 years old; in less than two weeks he would become the youngest U.S. president in history in the wake of President William McKinley’s assassination.
Undated Star Tribune file photo
 
Minneapolis Tribune coverage of Roosevelt’s speech is an early example of unintentionally nonlinear storytelling. The disorganized arrangement of stories and photos spread across several pages makes it difficult to quickly figure out who he was, when he arrived, why he came and what he said. Of course, a contemporary reader keeping up with the events of the week probably would have been able to scan the paper more quickly than a 21st-century reader coming to it cold.

On the front page, there are just two references to Roosevelt’s visit: a photo of him and Gov. Van Sant reviewing National Guard troops, and an editorial cartoon showing Roosevelt tipping his hat to “Minneapolis labor” (in the form of a thinly smiling, oversize steel milk can). No mention is made of the exhaustive coverage inside. Inside, there’s a blow-by-blow account of his arrival in Minneapolis, where thousands of citizens lined Hennepin Avenue and other streets to greet him as he passed. There’s a blow-by-blow account of the vice-presidential procession to St. Paul. A transcript of Roosevelt’s lengthy speech at the grandstand takes up nearly a third of a page. You have to feel sorry for the poor sap who had to transcribe the opus without a recording device. Or perhaps Roosevelt's remarks were provided to the local newspapers in advance.

Helpfully, Tribune editors provided a highlights box — “Extracts from Vice-President’s Speech” — for readers too busy to plow through the sea of 8-point text. The highlights do not include the signature phrase for which the speech became known, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” This oversight is an example of why newspapers are known as the first draft of history.

Here are excerpts from Roosevelt’s 5,300-word speech, as reported in the Minneapolis Tribune dated Sept. 3, 1901. (Originally posted here in August 2005; reposting to clean up design, update links and allow fresh comments.)
 

‘We Must Raise Others While
We Are Being Benefited.”

 
Keynote of the Opening State Fair Address Delivered Yesterday by Vice-President Roosevelt.
 
The Duties of One Citizen to His Neighbor Not more Important, However, Than the Duties of the United States as a Nation to Other Nations.
 
The vice-president delivered his address at the opening of the state fair yesterday to a larger crowd than has ever been seen on the grounds on the first day of this annual event.
 
The hundreds who listened to him felt they had profited by the experience. His address was an inspiriting encouragement of the right and the strength in the individual as well as the nation. The duties of the citizen of the United States to his neighbor was not more important, according to the vice-president, than the duties of the United States as a nation to the other nations of the earth. He emphasized the fact that “we must raise others while we are benefiting ourselves.”
 
The strength of the address appealed to the crowd, whose appreciation of its sentiments was shown time and again by the warm applause which it elicted. [sic]
 
Following is Vice-President Roosevelt’s address in full:
 
In his admirable series of studies of Twentieth century problems Dr. Lyman Abbott has pointed out that we are a nation of pioneers; that the first colonists to our shores were pioneers, and that pioneers selected out from among the descendants of these early pioneers, mingled with others selected afresh from the old world, pushed westward into the wilderness, and laid the foundations for new commonwealths. They were men of hope and energy; for the men of dull content or more dull despair had no part in the great movement into and across the new world. Our country has been populated by pioneers, and therefore it has in it more energy, more enterprise, more expansive power than any other in the wide world.
 
You whom I am now addressing stand, for the most part, but one generation removed from these pioneers. You are typical Americans, for you have done the great, the characteristic, the typical work of our American life. In making homes and carving out careers for yourselves, and your children, you have built up this state; throughout our history the success of the homemaker has been but another name for the upbuilding of the nation. The men who with ax in the forest and pick in the mountains and plow on the prairies, pushed to completion the dominion of our people over the American wilderness have given the definite shape to our nation. They have shown the qualities of daring, endurance and far-sightedness, of eager desire for victory and stubborn refusal to accept defeat, which go to make up the essential manliness of the American character. Above all they have recognized the practical form the fundamental law of success in American life – the law of worthy work, the law of high, resolute endeavor. We have but little room among our people for the timid, the irresolute and the idle, and it is no less true that there is scant room in the world at large for the nation with mighty thews that dares not to be great. …
 
Front page cartoon The caption on this front-page cartoon: “Teddy takes his hat off to Minneapolis labor.”
 
Every father and mother here, if they are wise, will bring up their children not to shirk difficulties, but to meet them and overcome them; not to strive after a life of ignoble ease, but to strive to do their duty, first to themselves and their families and then to the whole state; and this duty must inevitably take the shape of work in some form or other. You, the sons of pioneers, if you are true to your ancestry, must make your lives as worthy as they made theirs. They sought for true success, and therefore they did not seek ease. They knew that success comes only to those who lead the life of endeavor. …
 
No hard and fast rule can be laid down as to where our legislation shall stop in interfering between man and man, between interest and interest. All that can be said is that it is highly undesirable on the one hand, to weaken individual initiative, and on the other hand, that in a constantly increasing number of cases we shall find it necessary in the future to shackle cunning as in the past we have shackled force.
 
It is not only highly desirable, but necessary, that there should be legislation which shall carefully shield the interest of wage workers, and which shall discriminate in favor of the hones and human employer by removing the disadvantages under which he stands when compared with unscrupulous competitors who have no conscience, and will do right only under fear of punishment.
 
Nor can legislation stop only with what are termed labor questions. The vast individual and corporate fortunes, the vast combinations of capital which have marked the development of our industrial system, create new conditions, and necessitate a change from the old attitude of state and the nation toward property. …
 
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. 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. …
 
This is the attitude we should take as regards 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. …
 
1901 front page Four days after Roosevelt spoke at the fair, President McKinley was shot by an assassin in Buffalo, N.Y.
 
Our dealings with Cuba illustrate this, and should be forever a subject of just national pride. We speak in no spirit of arrogance when we state as a simple historic fact that never in recent times has any great nation acted with such disinterestedness as we have shown in Cuba. We freed the island from the Spanish yoke. We then earnestly did our best to help the Cubans in the establishment of free education, of law and order, of material prosperity, of the cleanliness necessary to salutary well-being in their great cities. We did all this at great expense of treasure, at some expense of life, and now we are establishing them in a free and independent commonwealth, and have asked in return nothing whatever save that at no time shall their independence be prostituted to the advantage of some foreign rival of ours, or so as to menace our well-being. To have failed to ask this would have amounted to national stultification on our part.
 
In the Philippines we have brought peace, and we are at this moment giving them such freedom and self-government as they could never under any conceivable conditions have obtained had we turned them loose to sink into a welter of blood, and confusion, or to become the prey of some strong tyranny without or within. The bare recital of the facts is sufficient to show that we did our duty, and what prouder title to honor can a nation have than to have done its duty? We have done our duty to ourselves, and we have done the higher duty of promoting the civilization of mankind. …
 
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.
 
Let us instantly condemn and rectify such wrong when it occurs, and if possible punish the wrong-doer. But, shame, thrice shame to us, if we are so foolish as to make such occasional wrong-doing an excuse for failing to perform a great and righteous task. No only in our own land, but throughout history, the advance of civilization has been of incalculable benefit to mankind, and those through whom it has advanced deserve the higher honor. All honor to the missionary, all honor to the soldier, all honor to the merchant who now in our own day have done so much to bring light into the world’s dark places.
 
Roosevelt at 1901 fair
The vice president found time to saddle up near the grandstand during his visit to the fair. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
 
Let me insist again, for fear of possible misconstruction, upon the fact that our duty is two-fold, and that we must raise others while we are benefiting ourselves. In bringing order to the Philippines, our soldiers added a new page to the honor-roll of American history and they incalculably benefited the islanders themselves. Under the wise administration of Gov. Taft the islands now enjoy a peace and liberty of which they have hitherto never even dreamed. But this peace and liberty under the law must be supplemented by material, by industrial development, to the introduction of American industries and products; no merely because this will be a good thing for our people, but infinitely more because it will be of incalculable benefit to the people of the Philippines.
 
We shall make mistakes; and if we let these mistakes frighten us from work, we shall show ourselves weaklings. Half a century ago Minnesota and the two Dakotas were Indian hunting grounds. We committed plenty of blunders, and now and then worse than blunders, in our dealings with the Indians. But who does not admit at the present day that we were right in wresting from barbarism and adding to civilization the territory out of which we have made these beautiful states? And now we are civilizing the Indian and putting him on a level to which he could never have attained under the old conditions.
 
In the Philippines let us remember that the spirit and not the mere form of government is the essential matter. The Tagalogs have a hundred-fold the freedom under us that they would have if we had abandoned the islands. We are not trying to subjugate a people; we are trying to develop them, and make them a law-abiding, industrious and educated people, and we hope, ultimately, a self-governing people. In short, in the work we have done, we are but carrying out the true principles of our democracy. We work in a spirit of self-respect for ourselves and of good-will toward others, in a spirit of love for and of infinite faith in mankind. We do not blindly refuse to face the evils that exist; or the shortcomings inherent in humanity; but across blunderings and shirking, across selfishness and meanness of motive, across short-sightedness and cowardice, we gaze steadfastly toward the far horizon of golden triumph.
 
If you study our past history as a nation you will see we have made many blunders and have been guilty of many shortcomings, and yet that we have always in the end come out victorious because we have refused to be daunted by blunders and defeats—have recognized them, but have preserved in spite of them. So it must be in the future. We gird up our loins as a nation with the stern purpose to play our part manfully in winning the ultimate triumph, and therefore we turn scornfully aside from the paths of mere ease and idleness, and with unfaltering steps tread the rough road of endeavor, smiting down the wrong and battling for the right as Greatheart smote and battled in Bunyan’s immortal story.
 

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