Book Summary: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

My Personal Summary

This book is about the childhood of Theodore Roosevelt (TR).

TR was born with severe asthma and was undersized for much of his childhood. Doctors told him that he would have to live a quiet life but he completely rejected this.

TR’s dad was a huge inspiration to him. His dad was known for being a hard-worker, well-loved by his family, well-respected in New York, and spent much of his time doing charitable work to set up foundations to help those less fortunate.

TR’s dad died when TR was only 19 years old, but he was a huge source of inspiration for TR, who would go on to “get action” as his dad taught him, exploring nature, writing books, becoming active in politics, and eventually going on to become one of the most iconic U.S. presidents in history because of his larger-than-life demeanor.

Book Notes

  • TR’s grandfather, initials abbreviated CVS, became a millionaire by importing glass. CVS gifted TR’s dad a house in Manhattan as a wedding present. CVS was fabulously wealthy and passed down his wealth to TR’s father, also named Theodore.
  • In 1869, TR’s dad set up a lodging house that offered a place for homeless boys in New York to sleep and have a warm meal.
  • In 1869, TR’s dad also helped start the American Museum of Natural History.
  • He hated idleness. Every hour must be accounted for and one must also enjoy everything one did. Get action, he said. Seize the moment. “Man was never intended to become an oyster.”
  • TR was born in 1858, the second oldest of four children. As a young boy, he had severe asthma, chronic stomach trouble, colds and fevers. Rarely could he sleep without being propped up in bed or in a big chair, so difficult was it for him to breathe.
  • TR’s dad was admired by all of his children and he spent his free time teach in them how to climb trees, ride horses, and a variety of other activities.
  • TR’s dad married Mittie Bulloch, a southern girl from Georgia, in 1853.
  • When the Civil War started in 1861, it was tense in the Roosevelt household because TR’s dad opposed slavery but worked to prevent a war from occurring. By contrast, TR’s mom Mittie had family in the south who owned slaves and viewed slavery from an entirely different perspective. TR’s dad paid another man to serve in his place in the war, which was legal but costly, which is why only the wealthy were able to do so.
  • Although TR’s dad didn’t fight in the Civil War, he helped start the Allotment Commission, a program that allowed soldiers to send home payments to family members while they were away at war.
  • In 1869, the Roosevelts traveled across the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool in nine days, where they planned on spending a year traveling abroad. During the voyage, it’s said that TR frequently went off on his own to read a book.
  • Although only 11 years old with intermittent asthma during their European trip, TR would sometimes walk as far as 20 miles in a single day with his father through various mountain ranges. In his journals, TR frequently wrote about how he was proud to be the “first” among his siblings to climb some mountain or view some landscape or go to some museum, an early hint that he would eventually later in life pride himself on standing out among his peers.
  • Asthma is a disease of the night, which, for a small, impressionable child, can contribute greatly to its terrors. The onset may be sudden or gradual. The first stage is a tightening of the chest and a dry, hacking cough. Breathing becomes labored and shallow. The child starts to pant for air (“ asthma” in Greek means panting). A high-pitched wheeze begins. The child has to sit up. If he tries to speak at all, it is in short, desperate bursts. Soon he is unable to speak or move, except with the utmost difficulty. He is battling for breath, tugging, straining, elbows planted on his knees, shoulders hunched high, his head thrown back, eyes popping. Fiercely as he pulls and gulps for air, what he gets is never enough. A distance runner near the point of collapse knows much the same agony, except he also knows he can quit running if he chooses. The asthmatic has no such choice, and there is no telling how long the agony will go on.
  • With modern drugs, with potent bronchodilators like epinephrine, ephedrine, or aminophylline, such a state can usually be avoided, the attack kept within bounds. Oxygen can also be given. But no such drugs, no nebulizers or oxygen tents, were available in the Roosevelts” day.
  • Although TR suffered from severe asthma as a boy, he was fortunate that his family had the wealth and the means to summon a doctor at a moments notice or to transport TR to a different region where he could temporarily breath clean, pure air.
  • Beginning in 1870, TR started lifting weights and using a punching bag to build up his body in an attempt to physically beat his asthma.
  • As a child, TR loved nature and animals. He often brought frogs, squirrels, turtles and other creatures into the house to keep as pets or to watch them grow.
  • At age 13, TR received his first pair of glasses, which changed how far he could see and how much of the natural world he could see, giving him an enhanced view of the world. “It was the world of birds—birds, above all—that burst upon him now, upstaging all else in his eyes, now that he could actually see them in colors and in numbers beyond anything he had ever imagined.”
  • In 1872, the Roosevelt’s took another trip abroad and TR got the chance to use his new glasses and new shotgun that his father bought him to shoot a variety of different birds along the Nile River.
  • During their second trip abroad, TR picked up a passion for taxidermy, often stuffing the birds that he shot out of the air with his shotgun.
  • TR’s grandfather passed away in 1871 and it’s estimated that he left TR’s father at least $10 million in today’s dollars as his part of the inheritance.
  • TR’s dad took great pride in helping establish the Museum of Natural History by Central Park. “He liked to imagine the value of such a collection for all those who, “like Teedie,” were in quest of scientific knowledge. If there was to be a monument to his own efforts on earth, to prove he had “done something” with his life, he wanted it to be this museum.”
  • In 1873, an economic depression swept through the country. During this time, TR’s dad did a great deal of work to help set up charities to help people in need throughout New York, reportedly waking up at 6am and working until midnight most days.
  • Growing up, the Roosevelt’s spent much of the summer months at a house on Osyter Bay, a bay on Long Island.
  • In 1876, at age 17, TR went to college at Harvard. He was 5’8”, as tall as he would grow, and about 125 pounds.
  • TR adored his father, once writing in a letter to him from Harvard: “I do not think there is a fellow in college who has a family that love him as much as you all do me, and I am sure that there is no one who has a father who is also his best and most intimate friend, as you are mine.”
  • TR’s dad wrote back to him, saying “I must write a few lines to my oldest boy on his eighteenth birthday. I cannot realize that you really are so old, and still it is a great comfort to find that you are approaching mans estate. I have worked pretty hard all my life and anticipate passing over to you many of my responsibilities as soon as your shoulders are broad enough to bear them. It has always seemed to me as if there was something peculiarly pleasant in the relations between a father and a son, the enjoyment of the father is so great as he cares for the boy and sees him gradually become a reasoning being, his mind and his physique both developing under his care and training, and above all his religious views becoming more fixed. As he approaches manhood the boy enjoys relieving the father of first the responsibilities which he has borne until that time, and those cares prepare the boy to take the father’s place in the great battle of life.”
  • In 1878, TR’s dad died of stomach cancer when TR was only 19 years old. TR was devastated, writing in his personal journal, “He was the most wise and loving father that ever lived: I owe everything to him.”
  • His inheritance from his father, he had been informed by Uncle James Alfred, was $ 125,000, and from this he could expect an annual income of approximately $8,000 a year, a princely sum. It was, for example, considerably more than the salary of the president of Harvard.
  • During his senior year at Harvard, TR worked on writing a book about the naval side of the War of 1812. This was not associated with any class; he wrote it merely because he was interested in the topic.
  • TR married Alice Hathaway in 1880.
  • Theodore said later it was a combination of curiosity and “plain duty” that led him into politics, and that “I intended to be one of the governing class,” which may be taken as another way of saying he wanted power.
  • At age 23, TR made his first notable speech, accusing railroad tycoon Jay Gould of corrupt dealings. His motion ultimately failed as many other politicians were bribed to look the other way, but he gained notoriety and recognition.
  • Throughout the 1880’s, TR went Buffalo hunting in the badlands of South Dakota and fell in love with being out west in nature and under blue skies. His love of the outdoors would eventually manifest itself in the form of his conservation efforts to establish numerous national parks out west when he eventually became president.

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