Mornings on Horseback, David McCullough

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my all-time heroes. As a near-sighted asthmatic myself, I love the stories of how he developed the idea of “the strenuous life” to overcome his ailments and went on to become one of the most admired and beloved figures in United States history. His tirelessness physically and mentally and his unwavering morality never fail to inspire. It is shocking to be reminded that he died at 60–his brain, his mouth, his pen or his body was in motion the entire time; no wonder he wore himself out relatively early.

Theodore’s papa, also named Theodore, was a paragon of fatherhood. He told his sickly son, “You must make your body. Without the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. It is hard drudgery to make your body, but I know you will do it.” The family built a gym in their home. Even though his progress was barely perceivable, TR kept with his training and by his Bad Lands mid-20s, he was strong and fit.

Another important physical change for TR was receiving his first pair of spectacles at age 13. A whole new world opened up to him. Though he admitted he was never a great shot due to his nearsightedness, he was able to participate and accomplish so much more once he had glasses.

If Theodore Jr had not been who he was, his father would have been much more famous. Theodore Sr did some incredible things, such as traveled through Russia in the 1850s when it was very unusual to do so. He founded (with others) the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum of America in New York City. He did an enormous amount of charitable work with orphaned children on the streets of New York and exposed and included his children in all of these activities.

Theodore Sr was a man of action. He said, “I always believe in showing affection by doing what will please the one we love, not by talking.” He made an enormous impression on his son who seemed very thoughtful and respectful in his close relationships.

This book ends before TR begins his major conservationist activities, so his near-constant killing of birds and four-footed game is a little tough to take. He does use every encounter with an animal to learn about its habits and features and the information usually made its way into one of his many published writings. In terms of deer, elk and other game, he never killed purely for sport (although his brother Elliott, who died at age 34 did), but hunted when he needed meat for himself or his hired hands.

Mornings on Horseback does not get too much into the hunting aspect of TR’s life but does give a detailed description of his practice of taxidermy as a child. The section describing how he set up a table on the family’s barge during a trip up and down the Nile River to stuff the hundreds of birds he shot is extremely memorable. Talk about a “vanished way of life!” Despite the killing and the stuffing, I am most envious of this relaxed and dreamlike Nile trip.

Though the killing of animals depressed me more this reading, the political chapters gave me more reason for hope and were more engaging to me than previously. What I’m finding from reading history is that corruption is nothing new (obviously; but it is reassuring to be reminded), politicians (with few exceptions) have always been power and money-mad, and compromises are unavoidable.

There are four faces on Mount Rushmore and TR’s is one of those…if we get one Rushmore-worthy face every 40-80 years or so we are on schedule to have another great hero or heroine soon (I think FDR would have been up there if the carving, which began in 1927 and ended in 1941, had been done just 20 years later).

Because of his doting and quite fabulous parents, their enormous wealth, early travels, super-supportive siblings and good education, TR had abundant opportunity for success. He and his family left an amazing record through letters and journals which describe pretty much exactly how he achieved what he did, but without his constitution, ambition and genius such incredibly fulfilled potential would be impossible to replicate.

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