With his 1981 book Mornings on Horseback
, David McCullough became one of the many biographers to attempt capturing Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s life on the page. For generations, national attention was focused on his more ubiquitous fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet, the current American disposition toward its leaders prompted McCullough to give attention to a former president who embodied many characteristics recent leaders seem to lack.
As Geoffrey C. Ward describes in a New York Times
review of McCullough’s biography
, Roosevelt was “exuberant, uncomplaining, gloriously self-confident, delighted by the great power of his office to do good.” McCullough, however, focuses on more than the inherent qualities that blossomed into the makings of a good president. He also explores Roosevelt’s early life to reveal “what was involved in the metamorphosis of this most conspicuous animate wonder.”
No book about Theodore Roosevelt Jr. would be complete without a thorough examination of the Roosevelt family. So, as Mornings on Horseback
begins, the author shares a few pertinent details about the family’s history, going all the way back to the mid-seventeenth century, when the first Roosevelt landed in New York. McCullough describes Theodore Roosevelt Sr. as a stalwart man committed to charitable and civic pursuits while maintaining an air of sophistication and strength.
The young Theodore thought highly of his father, which undoubtedly planted the seeds of some of the more noteworthy traits that made him an outstanding statesman and president. So profound was Roosevelt Sr.’s impact on the family that some dubbed him “Greatheart,” a testament to the fearlessness and energy he exhibited in both his public and private life. The young Theodore himself acknowledged Roosevelt Sr.’s extraordinary resolve, and once wrote that his father was the best man he ever knew—and the only man he ever feared.
The author gives equal attention to Roosevelt’s maternal family. Theodore’s mother, Martha—or Mittie, as she was affectionately called—was a member of the Bulloch family hailing from the South. While many scholars attribute much of Theodore’s character to his father’s family, McCullough argues that his mother had as much to do with the man he became as Roosevelt Sr. did. Mittie’s influence was a palpable fixture in Theodore’s life, and much of the future president’s disposition was a product of his mother’s critical role in his early development. As Geoffrey C. Ward puts it, “T.R. was much more Bulloch than Roosevelt in his flamboyance, his humor, his love of heroics and derring-do.”
McCullough dives a bit deeper into Mittie’s life, focusing briefly on her upbringing in Georgia and her half-brother’s many misadventures and run-ins with the law. These are the author’s attempt to paint as complete a picture as possible of some of the influences that shaped Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s worldview.
McCullough also describes the toll the Civil War took on the Roosevelt marriage. The opposing political views of Theodore’s parents threatened to split the family in two. The author does not spare the reader the turmoil differing ideals caused within the family. The elder Roosevelt was a Lincoln Republican, but Mittie, whose family were slave owners, supported her family’s cause. She even created care packages for front-line Confederate soldiers without her husband’s knowledge.
Recognizing the futility of going against his wife and possibly alienating himself from her family, Roosevelt Sr. hired someone to take his place in the war and limited his actions to those that did not require his personal involvement in the fighting. Witnessing his father’s regret over not fighting in the war proved a pivotal moment in young Theodore’s life, which McCullough explains could have contributed to the eagerness for battle that accompanied Roosevelt for most of his life.
McCullough also devotes a portion of the book to young Theodore’s relationships with his siblings. There were four Roosevelt children in all; Anna, or “Bamie,” was the oldest and her father’s favorite. Theodore was the first boy born into the Roosevelt clan; he was sickly from birth and suffered from debilitating asthma (which he overcame later in life). The third child was Elliot, the second and final son. The baby of the family was Corinne, or “Conie,” as the family called her. She too suffered from the asthma that afflicted her older brother, though to a lesser degree.
McCullough takes the reader on a journey with this bunch that spans seventeen years, beginning in the late 1860s and culminating in the mid-1880s, when Roosevelt returned to New York after moving to North Dakota, married his second wife, and committed himself to public service, which largely defined his remaining years. Perhaps the most profound aspect of Mornings on Horseback
is the book’s ability to convey Roosevelt’s transformation from a frail young boy to one of the most prominent figures in America’s political history. This fact-based account of Roosevelt’s life is one of the most intimate portraits of a former president ever written.