A narrative account of the twentieth president's political career offers insight into his background as a scholar and Civil War hero, his battles against the corrupt establishment, and Alexander Graham Bell's failed attempt to save him from an assassin's bullet.
The Book Description: James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back.
But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what happened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in turmoil. The unhinged assassin’s half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. As his condition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet.
Meticulously researched, epic in scope, and pulsating with an intimate human focus and high-velocity narrative drive, The Destiny of the Republic will stand alongside The Devil in the White City and The Professor and the Madman as a classic of narrative history.
My Review: I knew next to nothing about this president. I'd sort-of known he was assassinated, but not much about why. “Oh, the one in the 1880s? Didn't some nut kill him?”
What a story this is. What a gargantuan loss to the USA his non-Presidency was. What an interesting, interesting man! We hear reams about people significantly less interesting than Garfield was. It's not right. But it makes sense...all he did as president was get killed a couple months after he was sworn in.
Garfield was a self-made man, from a poor family, with a troubled marriage. (Ring any more recent bells?) His wife was a chilly intellectual on whom he cheated once. (PLEASE tell me you've got it now.) And even more like Clinton, Garfield entered the race for the White House with powerful people strongly opposed to his winning. He was thwarted and stymied and made to do battle over things that were deeply entrenched and very wrong with the political culture of the day, and he only sort of won.
I trust my parallel is made.
So I was surprised to learn that Garfield was a Republican, and a populist progressive reforming one. (That sentence gave me vertigo to type. I'm not used to saying nice things about Republicans.) My, how things have changed! And the system he fought against actually, literally ended up costing him his life. In that time, presidents controlled all government jobs, and so the people who wanted to get security got in good with the party and made their case for a job to one harassed man, with maybe a secretary or two to assist him...good people got jobs, I'm sure, but more bad ones got good jobs than the other way around. In denying a very bad applicant a “spoils” job, Garfield signed his own death warrant.
Charles Guiteau, who shot Garfield in the back as he was to board a train in order to visit his recuperating wife, isn't his murderer. That person is the doctor who cared for him in the most backward possible way, Dr. D. Willard Bliss. Of evil memory ptooptoo. Despite Dr, James Lister's empirical proof of the germ theory's truth by means of reducing post-surgical mortality via sterilization of instruments and rooms, Bliss held to the old-fashioned view that it was falderol to say something you couldn't see could kill a man. Bliss, if you can believe this, stuck his finger in the bullet hole in Garfield's back in the train station, on the floor, with no washing!
It's a wonder he didn't die a lot sooner, with this kind of “care,” isn't it? As it is, the almost obnoxiously healthy and virile Garfield was shot on 2 July and didn't die until 19 September. Months of infections, months of idiot Bliss being wrong about everything (he said categorically that the bullet was lodged on the right side...it was on the left, it turned out...and he refused to even investigate the left side), and the potential great president died in agony. His vice-president was Chester Alan Arthur, that monadnock of probity and intellect. Oh dear, I fear my sarcasm gland is dripping again.
Well, okay, so it's clear I liked the story. I also liked the book. The author also wrote a book on Teddy Roosevelt, another Republican progressive and all-around fascinating man, called River of Doubt. It's a really good story, and a very good read. She has an affinity for real-life drama, Madame Millard, and she has an excellent ear for the phrase that will illuminate it. In Chapter 14, entitled “All Evil Consequences,” this phrase in particular wrung my withers:
Had Garfiled been shot just fifteen years later, the bullet in his back would have been quickly found by X-ray images, and the wound treated with antiseptic surgery. Had he been able to receive modern medical care, he likely would have spent no more than a few nights in the hospital.
Such are the vagaries of history...the good wand worthy die, the evil and vile get new hearts at taxpayer expense.
Candice Millard writes a good yarn. If all you want is an exciting and interesting story, this book will satisfy you. If you're interested in history, it will enrich you. If you're excited by the odd pathways of fate, this could be the best of 2012 for you. I'm all of the above. I was sucked in from the get-go, and came out a happy, happy angry man.
These seemingly disparate stories come together as Millard shows us Garfield's love of learning, particularly science. Having served successfully in the Union Army, he then served nine terms as Ohio Congressman until his unanticipated nomination for President on the Republican ticket. Our science/medicine lesson begins with an exciting glance at the United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where the Hall of Machinery featured such exhibitors as Alexander Graham Bell and his telephone. At the same time, in another area Joseph Lister was trying in vain to convince the doctors of the US of the need to wash hands, instruments, wound sites with carbolic acid to kill germs. He was not well accepted, and the rejection of his theories became critical in the failed attempts to save Garfield's life. Finally, throughout the book, we follow the movements of Charles Guiteau, the mentally unbalanced self-appointed individual who considered himself "chosen by God" to "remove President Garfield" so that Chester Arthur (the vice-president) could assume the throne and appoint Charles Guiteau to a government position.
These three separate but inter-related stories are woven together in a page-turning narrative. I knew some of the facts before I started reading this story. I knew Garfield had been assassinated; I knew that Alexander Graham Bell had invented other scientifically valuable devices besides the telephone; I knew that Lister was credited with the discovery of the theory of germs; and I knew that Garfield was succeeded by Chester Arthur. But the incredible detail and masterful blending of these different aspects of the worlds of science and politics kept me reading and reading and reading. I have a different and deeper appreciation for most of the players in this tableau.
The villain turns out not to be the so-called assassin. I doubt today that any jury would convict this man of murder - assuming his case ever came to trial. Millard's assertion that Garfield was killed by his doctors, not by the assassin's bullet will find no argument from me. It's a sad, depressing, discouraging story of how ego can kill, of how humans can deceive themselves, and how far we've come and how far we still have to go in the field of medicine, and the political arena.
Other players who were fleshed out to step into the limelight include Lucretia Garfield (the President's wife), Robert Todd Lincoln, Joseph Stanley Brown (Garfield's private secretary), Dr. Doctor Bliss (the incompetent physician who self-appointed himself to be in charge of the president's care), Roscoe Conkling ( a crooked politician who mentored Chester Arthur until Arthur became President), and vice-President Arthur himself. All of these are featured in enough detail to explain their roles in the drama, but without too much verbiage. In fact, one of the best things I can say about the book besides the well-told story, is to praise the tight editing which gave us a story well worth reading without dragging us down with myriad unnecessary details.
Finally, it is a monumental tribute to an obviously under-rated President. By showing us his focus on education as the way out of poverty, his willingness to embrace science, his insistence of bettering the lives of blacks by giving them education, jobs and the vote, and his unfinished plans to reform the Congressional system of awarding federal jobs to cronies which led to Arthur's founding of the Civil Service, Millard demonstrates his greatness as it has not been shown before.
To say that he was a man of kindness and honor is to not say enough. He had gained the respect of nearly all who knew him, barring only those whose own aspirations and jealousies prevented them from seeing the man that james Garfield had become.
He found a way to obtain the schooling that experiences early in life convinced him that he needed in order to make a difference, and making a difference is what he wanted most. Beginning with a few dollars his family had saved, he worked his way to and through a superior education. One made all the better by is own focus and intelligence. Life gave him the opportunity to meet and marry the love of his life.
Garfield's path to the White House took him through the Civil War where he achieved the rank of general. He became a congressman whose own integrity led him to fight what was then, as it is now, a corrupt political atmosphere.Sadly, before he had a chance to make his mark in history, or change the course of this country, an attack on his life would soon leave both his family and country without this great man. One can only wonder how history might have been changed had he lived. I have to believe that he would have had a profound impact on his country.
For most people, Garfield is probably one of the lesser-known presidents because his term in office was so short. I was probably more familiar with Garfield through our common heritage in the Restoration (or Stone-Campbell) Movement. Garfield attended a Disciples of Christ school, Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) and later served as its president. He also preached in Disciples of Christ churches during his Hiram College years.
Discussions of Garfield's biography within Restoration Movement circles tend to stick to his public life as a college president, lay preacher, Civil War general, and politician. The gorilla in the corner is safely avoided that way, the “gorilla” being Garfield's affair with reporter Lucia Calhoun. I already knew about the affair, but Millard's account put it into context for me. Letters exchanged by Garfield and his wife reveal Garfield's early reservations about their marriage. As Millard described it, I was reminded of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. Garfield was demonstrative like Marianne, while his wife was reserved like Elinor. Early in their relationship, Garfield mistook Lucretia's reticence for lack of feeling, much like Marianne's accusation against Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. In her defense, Lucretia finally resorted to showing Garfield her diary, which revealed the depth of her emotions. I was glad to learn that after weathering the rocky early years of marriage, Garfield and Lucretia had many happy years together. Garfield was a great reader and frequented the Library of Congress during his years in Washington. I couldn't help thinking that the Garfields might have avoided some of their early misunderstandings if he had only read Jane Austen!
As a librarian, I was interested to learn that Lucretia Garfield established what was essentially the first presidential library after her husband's death. She included the letters the couple exchanged during their courtship and marriage without succumbing to the temptation to remove letters that exposed the rough edges of their personalities and flaws in their characters. That's quite a contrast to the behavior of the survivors and descendants of other presidents who have attempted to control their relative's legacy by removing documents from their relative's personal papers before depositing them in a library or archive.
While the account of the events surrounding Garfield's assassination is spellbinding, I have some reservations about the biographical sketches of the people involved in the incident. For instance, Millard discusses Garfield's talent for and enjoyment of public speaking without mentioning the years he spent preaching. Debates were common among the Disciples of Christ in the 19th century (e.g., the debate between Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen), and Garfield did his share of debating. It's a curious omission, since these experiences surely must have contributed to Garfield's public speaking skills.
Recommended for readers looking for a popular history of an event that changed the course of U.S. history.
1) Garfield did NOT want the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate when it was thrust upon him at the DNC. He had never agreed to having his name put forward and was horrified when the Democrats insisted. I can’t help thinking how perhaps the people who want to be president the most are the ones we should refuse to elect.
2) How about this for an electioneering attitude: “Traveling from town to town and asking for votes was considered undignified for a presidential candidate. Abraham Lincoln had not given a single speech on his own behalf during either of his campaigns, and Rutherford B. Hayes advised Garfield to to the same.” Garfield agreed wholeheartedly. He tilled his fields, built an irrigation system, harvested his crops and generally ignored all the bad political behavior. In October a singing group from the all-black university in Nashville “came to Garfield’s modest farmhouse and sang for him.” It was apparently a most moving performance, especially for Garfield who had been since earliest childhood a vehement Abolitionist. When the singers finished he said, “I tell you now, in the closing days of this campaign, that I would rather be with you and defeated than against you and victorious.” I wonder who would dare say that today?
Of course, sadly, Garfield was shot shortly after taking office and served only six month as President. The shortest term of all. A great pity.
The medical passages here are grueling. The arrogance of the medical establishment at the time insisted there was no reason for antiseptic. The number of unwashed fingers probing the presidential wound is stomach-churning, as are the rats, raw sewage seeping through the White House, and general filth. The bullet, we learn, was not the cause of the president's death. It was the subsequent, physician-caused infection. A hideous and slow death by sepsis.
I found this book touching, tragic and a real eye opener. Arrogance, hypocrisy, political wrangling, lies, the oppression of the poor, robber barons -- all the things we think are specific to the present are, in fact, present in the past. We would to well to cast an eye back and learn some hard lessons. The great gift of history such as this is that it can act as a canary in a coal mine. It makes one think how much better we could, and should do.
I finished the book wondering at the great loss of such a thoughtful, intelligent, deeply moral man. What might have been different had he lived?
Since I started reading this, I’ve found ways to work interesting facts about Garfield—as well as Alexander Graham Bell, metal detectors, the New York Customs House, Abraham Lincoln, mental health and medical history, and so much other stuff—into many other conversations. My friends know more about Garfield now than before I started reading this! If my American History classes in high school had been this engaging, I would have remembered a lot more of the details.
I got this from the library as an audio book that I listened to in the car. The writing is so personal and close that I found myself crying some mornings on the way to work. Sometimes just in utter frustration at how many tiny things could have gone differently, which would have allowed Garfield to live. Candice Millard does such an amazing job of convincing you that Garfield would have been a fantastic president, and he was certainly well loved at the time he died. I used to live in DC, and I always wondered why there was a big monument of him right in front of the Capitol. Now I know why he was so incredibly popular, but he died before he was able to affect much direct and lasting change.
I could go on and on about how much I learned from this engaging book (and, if you know me personally, you’ve heard me do so), but it would be better if you just read it yourself. Seriously, just give it a shot. You’ll be amazed at how much you find yourself caring about this almost-forgotten president and his life before you finish the first chapter.
Lots of wonderful little details. Garfield got nominated for president while at the convention making a nominating speech for - someone else! And then got saddled with corrupt party hack Chester A Arthur (Boo! Hisss!) as his Vice President.
Of course in those days you didn't "run" for president - you got nominated and then went home and sat on your front porch looking wise. It worked for Garfield.
Can't even conceive of a president of these United States who put aside two hours every day to receive and hear the special pleading of any nutcase with the patience to wait on line. But Garfield did.
Can't conceive of a president of these United States who lived in the White House with no guards no protection at all from assassination. Putting guards around a president made him seem "imperial" and not in touch with "the people" - or so people said.
Lincoln's assassination was fresh in everyone's mind but it was seen as an act of war - not something that could happen again.
Lovely stories about good old Roscoe Conklin the famous King of Patronage and his downfall and the beginning of the merit system of civil service - began by -- (formerly corrupt) Chester A Arthur!
A fascinating story deeply and movingly told.
As sad as the story is, I loved the telling of it in this book. Author Candice Millard did a wonderful job of tying together the different different people most important in this tragedy, and the mood of the times. I would never have known otherwise that Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector so that he could try to locate the bullet still in Garfield's body. I needed a bit stronger stomach than I have to read about Garfield's treatment and the progression of his illness. And, 130 years after his death, I am sorry that he did not get the chance to live his full potential as president. I highly recommend this excellent book.
Thank you to the publisher for giving me an advance reader's edition of the book.
The book follows multiple threads - the life and assassination of Garfield, the life of giteau, the assassin, and also the scientific and medical theme mainly centered on Bell and his induction balance metal detector but also the malpractice of Bliss, the main doctor and to some extent Lister and the general medical schools of thought at the time regarding sterile practices.
Excerpts of letters helped to make the book lively but I would have appreciated longer excerpts at times and was engrossed in the book so would have been fine with a longer overall length.
Millard paints a positive picture of Garfield and at the end interesting, attributes his death with the downfall of the spoils system which is soonish left to blame for the ultimate cause of allowing someone like giteau to occur and also attributes the nation's mourning as a unifying force between country's regions. She also paints a picture of Chester Arthur as one who grows substantially through the circumstances thrust upon him though of still limited effect.
Overall it's an interesting and quick read and I would recommend it.
I don't read much in the way of history, memoir, biography, or other narrative nonfiction. Once in a while, though, I do step outside my customary paths and pick up something that holds my attention in much the same way as good fiction: with story, character, setting, theme, and capable craftsmanship. Destiny of the Republic is such a book. The element of documentable factuality adds significance, and the profound effect of this episode on the American nation as a whole confers a gravitas not to be found in any personal drama, no matter how compelling.
I had never read anything more about James A. Garfield than the few compulsory paragraphs I must have encountered in American history textbooks. His term was so brief, only six months including the two that he spent convalescing after the shooting in July of 1881, that no important changes or lasting achievements were credited to him, at least in my memory. What I never took in as a student was the impact of his assassination itself, much less the meaning of the election and then the loss of this honorable man who had never sought the presidency and had indeed tried to evade it.
As Millard so absorbingly tells it, the drama that unfolds with Garfield's nomination, election, violent injury, and tragic death reflects not only the shape of the nation a century after its founding but also the state of medical science, early advances in telephony, and so light a disregard for national security that it amounts to astounding laxity by today's standards. The intertwined threads of history weave what can almost be seen as inevitability in the way it plays out.
As told by the author, the true villain of the tale is not the deluded madman Charles Guiteau, who pulled the fateful trigger, but another deluded individual, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, the arrogant physician who interposed his own ego-driven agenda between the life of the president and the possibility of remedy by a hand other than his own.
This sad story grieves the heart for the fate of a good man who might have been a great president. It's impossible not to wonder how drastically the course of events in the United States and the world might have been altered by just one or two different choices by key individuals at crucial times. That question, I suppose, is one of the enduring fascinations of history.
Our reading club decided to read this book for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that Charles Guiteau hailed from Freeport where most of us live. We used to joke it was Freeport's only claim to fame, home of a presidential assassin. I mean why not? I can see it now, assassination fairs, Guiteau banners, restoration of his house (it's still there,) and some nifty slogans. They could even rename the Freeport Pretzels to the Freeport Assassins.
The author narrates dual tracks, following Guiteau and Garfield. They were so different: Guiteau the religious fanatic and loser, and Garfield the rather brilliant orator (albeit verbose), successful Civil War general, and abolitionist who really didn't want to be president. Guiteau bounced from one scheme to another, convinced, especially after his survival from a ship-wreck, that God had special plans for him. He tried evangelical preaching, lawyering ( in the worst sense of the word), and even joined the Oneida Community where he was shunned by most of the members. They believed in non-monogamous relationships, but the women refused to have anything to do with him, calling him by the nickname, Charles Get-Out.
The recounting of the Republican Convention in 1880 is fascinating. Garfield was not even in the running; he was there to support the nomination of a fellow Ohioan. But things got out of hand after the first ballot failed to nominate a candidate and by the 35th ballot the delegates were looking for an alternative. Despite his best efforts, the convention nominated him to run with Chester Arthur as his running mate. How the assassination changed Arthur (another presidential non-entity) and his rejection of Conklin is also quite fascinating. It wasn't until the assassination of McKinley barely two decades later that focused everyone's attention on presidential security.
Presidential openness and availability has changed drastically. The president remained open to the public, walking around the streets with little thought given to security, and Guiteau was able to just walk up to him and Blaine, the Secretary of State, in a train station and shoot him. Guiteau felt slighted because he was sure, in his mind, that he had been responsible for Garfield's election and was therefore deserving of a place in the administration, specifically the representative to France. When it was not forthcoming, God called him to eliminate the president.
Garfield would have survived easily had he been some bum on the street who received no medical care. The bullet had missed all vital organs, but the initial doctor, ignoring all Lister's medical knowledge to the contrary, poked around in the wound with septic bare fingers and the cause of death was out of control septicemia. There was also an unseemly battle for who was to be the "doctor in charge" of the president's care. The winner, Bliss, really screwed up his care. Many soldiers more severely injured in the Civil War had survived just fine. In fact, the policeman who hauled Guiteau off to jail had a bullet still lodged in his skull. The book could have been titled, The Doctor who Killed the President.
For some, the book will be a disappointment as it focuses on Alexander Graham Bell perhaps more than some would wish. Personally, I like this kind of cultural history/biography mix very much.
Destiny of the Republic is another well-researched and well-written book. Although the central theme is James A. Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau, Ms. Millard skillfully puts the event in the context of the period. Although Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated sixteen years earlier, there was still no agency to provide for the protection of the President. President Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine were in a crowded train station, unprotected, when Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker, shot Garfield. Although the British doctor, Joseph Lister had discovered and spoken widely about antisepsis, the germ theory, many doctors, including Dr. D. Willard Bliss who became Garfield’s chief doctor, were traditionalists who discounted the theory. Dr. Bliss, who was initially appointed by Robert Todd Lincoln, Garfield’s Secretary of War, insisted upon being the doctor in charge and refused to let other doctors, including Mrs. Garfield’s choices of physicians, be involved in Garfield’s care in any meaningful way. Infections caused by the use of dirty hands and instruments resulted in Garfield’s death; he would have probably survived the bullet wound.
Ms. Millard describes the stories of Garfield’s and Guiteau’s lives leading up to the assassination. She tells about the split in the Republican Party and how Garfield had to deal with the spoils system; he was hounded daily by office seekers after becoming President. She also details the work ethic of Alexander Graham Bell and his attempts to find the bullet in Garfield’s body using his induction balance instrument.
Positive results of Garfield’s unfortunate, painful death were the Pendleton Civil Service Act advocated for and signed by Garfield’s successor, President Chester A. Arthur, and the more wide-spread acceptance of the Lister’s germ theory.
In the Epilogue, Ms. Millard briefly tells what happened in the lives of other characters mentioned in the book including Garfield’s family, Alexander Graham Bell, and doctors and politicians involved in the story. An excellent book.
As a week dominated by terrorism unfolded in our country, I was drawn into this narrative history of the assassination of President Garfield. The world was, indeed, a rather crazy place even back then. From the politics of the day, where the support of a "spoils" system for government appointments were considered perfectly proper; to a medical establishment that stubbornly refused to accept the knowledge of antisepsis pioneered by Joseph Lister; to a public mentality that felt the President of the US should be open to visits from virtually any person wishing to see him at any time, and travel to and fro as a "regular" citizen with no security protection whatsoever; to the mind of one very disturbed drifter who felt entitled to be consul to France, and eventually decided God was calling him to kill the President. There was plenty in this book to amaze the reader unfamiliar with this period of history in general, and the details of our country's second Presidential assassination in particular.
Millard's writing brought the historical figures to life. I got a real sense of President Garfield, and have a much greater appreciation of him as a person and a leader. This reluctant president, the first ever nominated and elected without even giving consent for his name to be placed into nomination, was an intelligent and insightful man. I loved the description of his house full of books! In contrast, the assassin Charles Guiteau was a most irresponsible and -- yes, I'll use the word -- crazy man. Roscoe Conkling comes across as an obnoxious wheeler-dealer bullying politico. And then, after shots are fired and the medical drama unfolds, we see where Alexander Graham Bell fits into the picture, attempting to create a machine that might find the elusive bullet lodged in the President's body. And then there's the controlling Dr. Bliss, who takes charge of the President's care with a firm (and unsanitary) hand. And there are so many more figures of the time, drawn in vivid detail.
I really enjoyed this well-written book, and learned a lot from it. I appreciated the extensive notes at the end, knowing that the author did her homework before embarking on this wonderful job of story-telling. At least in my e-book, there were no numbers in the actual text to link to the endnotes. The endnote numbers appeared as links, but only took me back to the previous page of notes . . . not helpful. That's my only criticism of this book. Highly recommended!
Then to spice it up a bit we learn that on his behalf, as he lay dying in the Washington summer heat, air conditioning was invented and deployed for the first time in history. For Garfield! They invented it so he would be comfortable, thus making, I don't know, the whole modern world possible, probably.
Then, on his behalf, Alexander Graham Bell labored through the nights to invent a metal detector to find the bullet in his body. His efforts failed, but not because his device did not work, but rather because the physician would not allow him to inspect the left side of the body (where the bullet actually lay), insisting that he confine his metal detection to the side that the physician, Dr. Bliss, believed to be its location.
Furthermore, while Dr. Bliss, the imperious surgeon who claimed full responsibility for his care and probably killed him with his dirty fingers as he probed inside his abdomen, insisted that modern ideas of sterilization were nonsense, nonetheless out in the country and in Europe physicians were imploring the White House doctor to adhere to the ideas of Lister and sterilize instruments and hands. They were unsuccessful, but following Garfield's death their ideas gained a foothold.
We are treated along the way to some gloriously gruesome descriptions of anesthetic free 19th century surgery procedures, and copious amounts of puss and bodily fluids. You can skip that part if you like, but if you want to really smell the 19th century, it's worth a read too.
The story of his assassin, Charles Guiteau meanwhile provides a great picture of a 19th century low-life and more or less insane person, not just during those few months, but as recreated here, over much of his life. Millard is a good story teller, weaving together historical documents and her conversations with historians into a compelling narrative that makes us want to turn the page.
Finally, we have the remarkable story of Vice President Chet Arthur, a true nothing and political factotum, an errand boy to the egotistical Senator Roscoe Conkling, who mysteriously found the strength to kick his patron, Conkling, out of his life upon assuming the Presidency (earning Conkling's eternal enmity), and to begin the process of creating a civil service in the United States.
All of this happened in 1880 and 1881 (and in the 3 years that followed with Arthur), and is great fun to learn about.
And if you look up "unfulfilled potential" in my personal dictionary, with this book James Garfield's picture took the place of JFK's.
President James Garfield is one of those Commanders in Chief no one seems to know much about. By which I mean I never knew much about him, until PBS aired an hour-long documentary about his death, which because of its proximity also took in his entire presidency. (But seriously, the name "Garfield" is almost certainly going to mean "cat" to most people, not "president".) I was so utterly horrified by the story – and fascinated, in a look-how-the-train-wreck-twisted-the-metal way – that I went looking for this book.
The short version: it's an excellent book about an extraordinary man, and with a first-rate narration. It's a great book. Depressing, horrifying, heart-rending, and often nauseating – but really great.
Being me, there's a long version.
I could spend a couple thousand words just on what might have been had Garfield lived and served out a full term, or probably two. He was kind of amazing – how is he so unknown? "Big-hearted and cheerful, Garfield was nearly impossible to resist. Throughout his life, he was just as likely to give a friend, or even a determined enemy, a bear hug as a handshake." He deserves a far greater memorial than an orange cartoon cat. This book is a good beginning.
A big part of this story is the literally skin–crawling discussion of what anti–antisepsis medical practitioners practiced… Suddenly time travel is even less attractive. Never mind a dearth of antibiotics, Reconstruction-era racial strife, outhouses, and a complete lack of women's (or children's) rights – this exploration of how a bullet wound was treated in a man who held the highest office of the land and could, theoretically, expect the best medical care possible… this was enough to keep me from ever contacting Max and company in Jodi Taylor's St. Mary's series with a view toward tagging along on a trip backward. Whatever I might sometimes feel about the deficits of this day and age, thank you, I'd like to stay here please.
Because here, and now, no one would need to consider inserting a really bright light bulb into my body to find a bullet. No one would keep feeding me, even after the pattern was established that I would only shortly vomit everything back up (which must have been hellishly painful to the wound on the back, for starters. No one would pour fermented mare's milk down my throat, or inject beef broth into other orifices… No. Every time I start being wistful about the manners and morals and other shiny things about any past age, I'll think of the stubborn insistence of so many medical practitioners that hand-washing wasn't just unnecessary but probably harmful to patients, and … no, really, I'll stay put. (See, the Doctor has the TARDIS. And he's the Doctor. I'll go with him anywhere, anytime.)
I haven't been fond of Robert Lincoln since reading [book:The Emancipator's Wife]; that book's description of his treatment of his mother – who, I grant you, was a couple of McNuggets shy of a Happy Meal and, shall we say, challenging to deal with – left me fuming and heartsick. Now I learn that after Garfield was shot he rushed out in his carriage and picked up Dr. "Filthyhands" Bliss to come and see to the wounded president; he had tried (unsuccessfully, it may not be entirely fair to remind the reader) to save President Lincoln. Without the ham–handed (filthy–handed) efforts of this exemplar of the medical profession, the consensus is that Garfield might would surely have lived. Even apart from the academic or creepy connection Robert Lincoln had to not one, not two, but three assassinations – nope. I still don't like him.
So many good, forward–thinking doctors tried so hard to stop Bliss … And were shouted down. Or just ignored.
And my mind continues to be blown that the Secret Service wasn't officially assigned to protect the president for another twenty years. It's a little shocking that even more incidents didn't occur.
As I mentioned earlier, I found the story heart-breaking. Garfield's death
– devastated his family
– devastated the country
– cut short what might have been a brilliant presidency
– cut short what surely would have been a brilliant life
However, it also
– forced Chester Arthur to become a better man, and a good president (with a lot of help from Julia Sand
– brought the country together more than it had been since before the Civil War
– helped finally quash Roscoe Conkling, who needed quashing so very badly
– raised real awareness that no, really, germs are real and can be prevented from killing a patient if only certain levels of cleanliness are observed
– drove Alexander Graham Bell to develop an invention which, while (because of Bliss) it was unable to do a thing for Garfield, would go on to prevent discomfort and even death for thousands
I find it hard to swallow that Garfield's death might have benefited humanity more than the rest of his life might have … but it might be true.
One quote I made note of: "...traveling from town to town and asking for votes was considered undignified for a presidential candidate..."
I weep softly for the wisdom of a lost age.
For much of this fast-reading book, Millard built up Garfield as a paragon, so you wonder if it might have changed the "destiny of the republic" as the title suggests had he lived. Garfield was an "ardent abolitionist" and supporter of black suffrage who won a crucial battle in the American Civil War; Frederick Douglass was a supporter and admirer of Garfield. Millard hints he might have done much to fight for civil rights for Blacks in the South, that he was soon to travel South and give a important speech on race relations. One of the faults of the book, however, is that she doesn't really pin down what his agenda was, and doesn't really speculate on what difference it might have made had he lived. Milliard does give reason to believe that Garfield had a first rate mind and he certainly wasn't power-seeking--at least according to this account. He went to the Republican convention to nominate another man for President and left it the Republican candidate for President--according to Milliard to his chagrin and deep embarrassment--but notably, he didn't turn it down.
The picture of Garfield struck me as too good to be true. Nevertheless, there's the small moment that did say a lot about the man's decency. Shot down, his head on the lap of a bystander who rushed to him, he turned his head to avoid vomiting on her skirt. That did speak to me of his consideration of others even in the worse of circumstances, and when I was recounting that story to my aunt I found myself choking back tears. It was hard to read the last third of the book about Garfield's suffering under the ministrations of his doctors, as responsible as the madman who shot him for his death. Ah, 19th century medicine. It seems reading this story, that at least until the 20 century, you probably would have a better chance surviving staying away from doctors than calling them.
I wouldn't call this a scholarly history, despite the endnotes and bibliography at the back of the book. It's one of those popular histories written "like a novel" with all sorts of immediate details, ones leaving you dubious they could be gained from a historical record--although according to the introduction, Milliard certainly did plenty of research, even talking to descendents of Garfield. Overall I'd call this, even if not particularly insightful or deep, an entertaining book--and hey, I was tempted to give it a fourth star for making me choke up--I'm not easy. But when I compare this in my mind to the best presidential biographies I've read, or even Milliard's excellent River of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt, this feels a bit too lightweight to rate higher.
I now regret I never spent any time at Lawnfield.
On the timeline of American history, Garfield may remain hardly more than a foot note. But in reading this book, I came to appreciate just what a figure he was. He was admirable in so many ways--a scholar with a keen sense of justice who had the presidency thrust upon him--and had he lived, he may have even been one of our great presidents. But it was not to be, because a delusional nutcase, Charles Guiteau, shot him.
The true tragedy, however, is that Guiteau's imposed wound did not kill Garfield. It's fair to say that his doctors killed him. Not believing in the principles of antisepsis, they probed Garfield's wounds with unwashed, unprotected probes and fingers, setting him up for infection which led him to a slow, torturous death.
The drama is told well by Candice Millard. It may be difficult to convince people that Garfield is well worth remembering, but his story carries power to stand the test of time.