Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

Description (from
Mornings on Horseback is the brilliant biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt. Hailed as “a masterpiece” (John A. Gable, Newsday), it is the winner of the Los Angeles Times 1981 Book Prize for Biography and the National Book Award for Biography. Written by David McCullough, the author of Truman, this is the story of a remarkable little boy, seriously handicapped by recurrent and almost fatal asthma attacks, and his struggle to manhood: an amazing metamorphosis seen in the context of the very uncommon household in which he was raised.

The father is the first Theodore Roosevelt, a figure of unbounded energy, enormously attractive and selfless, a god in the eyes of his small, frail namesake. The mother, Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, is a Southerner and a celebrated beauty, but also considerably more, which the book makes clear as never before. There are sisters Anna and Corinne, brother Elliott (who becomes the father of Eleanor Roosevelt), and the lovely, tragic Alice Lee, TR’s first love. All are brought to life to make “a beautifully told story, filled with fresh detail”, wrote The New York Times Book Review.

A book to be read on many levels, it is at once an enthralling story, a brilliant social history and a work of important scholarship which does away with several old myths and breaks entirely new ground. It is a book about life intensely lived, about family love and loyalty, about grief and courage, about “blessed” mornings on horseback beneath the wide blue skies of the Badlands.

Why Should a President Read It?
Whatever merits other historians and authors have, McCullough has a unique ability to write in such a way as to make people and places of the past come alive. One reads as though one was there, and as one reads one imagines they feel what those people felt and see what they saw.

In Mornings on Horseback we learn about our 26th President’s ancestry, birth, childhood, education, marriages (his first wife passed away at 22), and beginnings in public service and politics. By understanding the influences to which Theodore Roosevelt was exposed and his unique personality and character, we can better understand his policies and motivation behind his other actions. Whether we agree with those policies or not, we do gain a better perspective on their origins. And since the policies of Theodore’s administration have had long-lasting impacts upon our country, understanding Roosevelt himself helps us better understand why we are where we are today and what attitudes, beliefs, and desires led us here.

But do I really need to give any reasons as to why a President should read this book? I’m of the opinion that a President should read as many good biographies of past Presidents as possible, and this one ranks up there with the best.

Personal Notes
I love McCullough’s books and this one is no exception, although when I reached the end I was surprised since I didn’t realize it was a biography of limited scope. That is, it only covers the first 30 years or so of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. There is nothing in this book about his presidency, other than some notes in the afterward. This book is not about Theodore Roosevelt the politician, or the President, but Theodore Roosevelt the young boy and young man. It is about the human part of Roosevelt that perhaps we sometimes fail to take into account given his larger-than-life political persona. Having something of a negative bias towards Theodore Roosevelt due to some of his political views, I enjoyed this chance to see him as the vulnerable child, rather than the headstrong man as which he is so often portrayed.