Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard: Turns forgotten murder of an obscure president into a gripping national tragedy. B-

From The Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard (2011):
Open quote 

Had Garfield 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. He might have been back on his feet within weeks."

After the jump, my review and excerpts.

What do you know about James Garfield? Mention the name Garfield to most Americans and they probably think of a comic strip cat. I knew little more about this obscure President than that he was assassinated. I knew he served during a particularly ignoble period of American history -- the late 1800s, a time of corruption, the spoils system, robber barons, exploitation of labor, subjugation of Native Americans, elimination of the civil rights of freed slaves, etc. Perhaps that's why grade school history lessons skip quickly over this period, going from the Civil War to Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in about a page or two.

Candice Millard's history fills in some of those blank pages. It also brings to life a President whose term as President was too short to do anything to merit space in the history books. Garfield had an impressive personal story. He was America's last "log cabin" President, rising from abject poverty to President largely through his own labor and merit.

Millard's history also sheds light on the politics of the era, which in some ways sounds so familiar, but in other ways so foreign to today's politics. Garfield didn't campaign for the Presidency, as it wasn't considered seemly to ask for votes. In office, his political enemies included his own vice president, who was allied with Garfield's bitterest personal enemy. Congress, then as now, was a snake pit.

Garfield freely traveled in Washington without escort or security, walking from the White House to meetings in private homes, hotels, and government office buildings. It's what led to his death, as a deluded, rejected office-seeker decided to kill the President. The assassin's story gets full play here, too, but it boils down to this: he was insane. There's nothing more to learn from his story. The bullet from his gun was as senseless as a bolt of lightning from the sky.

Much of the book covers the medical treatment Garfield received during the weeks between the shooting and his eventual death from massive infection. The bullet did serious damage, but it was the lack of antiseptic surgery that doomed Garfield. He eventually succumbed to an infection introduced by doctors poking and prodding his wound. The nineteenth century medical profession was still more threat than aid to its patients' lives and health. There's a lot that 21st century Americans could learn from that.

Millard chooses to write about a great man, worth restoring to high ranks in American history. Millard tells the story of his life and death well. There's a wealth of source material that brings this old, forgotten history to life. It's well worth reading and wondering about what might have been.

P.S. This book is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.


"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 do the same. 'Sit crosslegged,' he said, 'and look wise.'"

"The Capitol building, where Garfield had spent seventeen years of his life, suddenly seemed a snake pit, a place where vicious, small-minded men lay in wait, ready to attack at the first sign of weakness."

"Those who waited outside the White House, moreover, did not want simply to apply for a position. They wanted to make their case directly to Garfield himself. As the leader of a democratic nation, the president of the United States was expected to see everyone who wanted to see him."

"Charles Guiteau was an unremarkable figure. He had failed at everything he had tried, and he had tried nearly everything,"

"'If the President was out of the way every thing would go better.' Guiteau was certain the idea had not come from his own, feverish mind. It was a divine inspiration, a message from God."

"Not only did many American doctors not believe in germs, they took pride in the particular brand of filth that defined their profession. They spoke fondly of the 'good old surgical stink' that pervaded their hospitals and operating rooms,"

"As the president lay on the train station floor, one of the most germ-infested environments imaginable, Townsend inserted an unsterilized finger into the wound in his back, causing a small hemorrhage and almost certainly introducing an infection that was far more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet."

"Guiteau expected to be shown respect during the interviews, even deference. He saw himself not as a man reviled by an entire country but as a national hero and the object of widespread fascination."

"Even after losing two presidents to assassins, the idea of surrounding them with guards, and so distancing them from the people they served, still seemed too imperial, too un-American. In fact, Secret Service agents would not be officially assigned to protect the president until after William McKinley was shot in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901."

"More painful even than the realization that his brief presidency would be forgotten was the thought that future generations would never know the man he had been."


glbeach said...

Let me loan you Sarah Vowell's quirky 2005 book, 'Assassination Vacation' in which she mixes anecdotes of her research trips in with a witty and well-written history of several American assassinations, namely Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. I'm confident you will enjoy it.

Mark Steger said...

Quirky is right. Sarah Vowell's style is unique. I can't recommend her enough. I haven't read "Assassination Vacation" but I have read "The Wordy Shipmates." It's required reading for anyone who is tempted to take America back to the 17th century and live on that shining city on a hill with the Puritans.