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Book Review: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

by Suleman

Horseback Mornings is a biography of a young man called the Roosevelt Theodor, who later became US 26th president. The book provides an impression of Roosevelt’s younger years before he took office. McCullough wrote this book intending to make its readers have a more in-depth insight into the environment that shaped Roosevelt, one of the most influential US presidents, as he grew up. Speaking in a way that makes him an engaging historian to read, McCullough displays the fantastic metamorphosis that Roosevelt undergoes, something that is uncommon in the type of household in which he grew up in. McCullough brings out the tale of the remarkable young boy, Roosevelt, who was severely handicapped by asthma attacks that were recurrent and nearly fatal and his struggle to manhood.

The book covers a period of 17 years, from 1869 when Roosevelt was ten years old to 1886. This is when Roosevelt, as a real-life cowboy who was already hardened, comes back from the West to pick up the pieces of a life that was shattered and begins anew. He was now a grown man, whole in spirit and body. Therefore, the book is an excellent revelation of the inner man in Roosevelt as it gives an account of his battle against dreadful odds. These are the battles that yielded the courageous and robust life of Roosevelt as a president. The cowboy was still visible in Roosevelt even during his presidency.

Book Review: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

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McCullough brings out the picture of the early childhood illnesses that Roosevelt went through. McCullough explains that Roosevelt’s asthma attacks were terrible and kept recurring. There are known causes of asthma-like dust, pollen, strong perfumes, and exposure to chilly weather. However, McCullough does not only bring to light Roosevelt’s fight with asthma. He goes the extra mile to give a revelation about whether this was a physical illness caused by asthma trigger factors or whether particular life events triggered it.

The author makes commendable use of family letters, diaries, and personal notes to make a gentle argument that Roosevelt’s sickness could have been triggered by some life events and not just the usual asthma trigger factors. Using these materials, McCullough picks out days of little social interaction and days of long lectures as some of them. He also argues that Roosevelt may not have loved Sundays. The author also finds evidence of Saturday attacks. Whenever he was attacked, Roosevelt had to be taken to a different atmosphere where he could easily breathe or was rested. This shows how fragile Roosevelt was, a contrast to the type of man he had grown to be as president.

McCullough brings out Roosevelt’s evident metamorphosis from a sickly boy to a strong young man by documenting how the change in Roosevelt’s environment and his physical challenges strengthened his spirit and body through adventure. The author makes the book interesting by describing Roosevelt as a man who saw things in transparent black and white. Through this, the author reveals the kind of man Roosevelt was what he believed in and how his perception or take on specific issues made him become a great leader. At times, these are also the things that brought downfall in early politics.

Roosevelt grew up an honest and straightforward man, whether or not people agreed with him. That can be seen from his past as a rancher out to the west. One day, Roosevelt found a man in the ranch, branding a calf that was not marked as theirs. On the very day, he shot him and said, “A guy who steals for me steals me” (McCullough, 1982, p15). A poor author would have had enough tales of Roosevelt ‘s childhood, so it would have been unconvincing to present Roosevelt’s life-size-facts.

However, McCullough proves to be a better author because he recognizes the importance of the details of Roosevelt’s family and brings them out. For example, he reveals that the family was influential, wealthy, but never boastful. These are the characters that were evident in Roosevelt during his presidency. The wealthy and positive way of life that Roosevelt had were echoed in how Roosevelt’s led and used power in his presidency and the type of advice he gave out even before this. In one of his speeches, Roosevelt said, “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation: it is the way in which we use it” (McCullough, 1982, p56). His influential nature enabled him to quickly win a seat as a governor of New York and rise to the presidency. He became the youngest ever member that the assembly of the state of New York ever had.

The author also goes further into giving a more in-depth account of all Roosevelt’s immediate family members, and how their characters and Roosevelt’s experiences with each of them shaped him. McCullough (1982) reveals that Roosevelt’s father was a figure of unbounded energy, self-less, and very attractive. Because of these, he was some form of god in the eyes of the young and frail Roosevelt, who looked up to him as a model. The self-lessness that was evident in him could have been the source of Roosevelt’s honest and outright character. When he became the president, Roosevelt transferred the vigor he had gained by emulating and interacting with his father into pushing for and signing various legislative acts that were effective in protecting much of the lands of the US. He had also gained internal strength as compensation to the lack of masculine strength.

How the Book Fits into the Context of US History, 1877-1920

This book finds a place in the context of the US History from 1877-1920 because it draws the readers into the New York of the old days and brings to life a period that shaped a man who later ascended into becoming an exuberant president. Politics was an unseen profession for most of Roosevelt’s class, and the disappointments and challenges he experienced in his legislative career became the source of the Republican National convention of 1884. In US history, the period of 1877-1920 is termed as the Gilead age. This was a time when the political scene was so unfriendly and full of competition.

The main issues during the Gilead Age were money, corruption, modernization, and prohibition. Having grown to a strong and influential man and one full of determination, President Roosevelt campaigned for many changes in the US during this period that led to the nation becoming prosperous. This included reducing the levels of corruption. He also introduced policies under which the average citizens were in a position to get a fair deal out of them. He was able to call up two ways of life that had vanished from the American scene. These are the life of the northeast of the late 1800s and the western frontier.


The potent blend of personal letters, diaries, speeches, magazine articles and published works of Roosevelt’s family makes the story, Mornings on Horseback, an authoritative one. Added to the author’s thoughts and understanding of Roosevelt, the book achieves its primary goal of making its readers gain a deep insight into the environment that shaped Roosevelt as he grew up. Together, they explore in detail how Roosevelt rose to manhood by giving a fascinating and extraordinary picture of the home life, family, and background that shaped the Roosevelt, an endlessly fascinating president. Therefore, the author is worthy of his recommendation as a writer who knows how to collect and combine information from many sources, arrange them, and present them as an informative and exciting narrative.

  • McCullough, D. (1982). Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt. New York. Simon and Schuster.

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