April 18, 2012

BOOKS: Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard (2011)

You might not think there'd be much point to a book about James Garfield. His was the second-shortest Presidency, after all, at a mere 200 days, and almost half of that was spent in his death bed after being shot by Charles Guiteau. But Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic makes the story of Garfield's assassination more interesting than I'd ever have expected it to be.

Garfield was the savior of a sharply divided Republican party in 1880; his nomination speech for one of the declared candidates was so riveting that a deadlocked convention eventually turned to him as its nominee, very much against his wishes. He was a fine candidate with surprisingly broad appeal in a nation still suffering from the aftermath of the Civil War; he was a strong supporter of civil rights for black Americans, and an advocate of creating a civil service system instead of handing out every government position to one's cronies.

Guiteau was a lunatic, convinced that he was a power player in Republican politics who had played a great role in getting Garfield elected, and thought he should in exchange be given the ambassadorship to France. When he was inexplicably (to his mind, at least) passed over for the job, he could see no solution but to kill the President, for which he expected to be hailed as a hero and rewarded by Garfield's successor.

The tragedy of Garfield's death is that 20 years later, he almost certainly would have survived. There would have been X-ray technology, allowing his doctors to locate the bullet and to see that it could be left where it was without doing further damage. The principles of antiseptic medicine, recently articulated by British surgeon James Lister, would have taken hold in American medicine.

But in 1880, there were no X-rays, and American doctors not only didn't take Lister's ideas seriously, they thought those ideas were foolish, maybe even dangerous. Garfield's doctors, desperate to find the bullet that lay somewhere in his abdomen, thought nothing of poking into the wound with their bare fingers while he lay on a filthy mattress on the floor of the train station where he was shot. It was the infections, not the bullet wound, that eventually killed him. This was so clearly the case that Guiteau's lawyers briefly considered arguing that he wasn't responsible for Garfield's death and that the blame should fall entirely on the doctors' malpractice.

There are marvelous characters floating around the background of the story. Alexander Graham Bell works frantically to develop a metal detector strong enough to find the bullet within the President's body. Garfield's physician, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, refuses to let anyone else near the president. (The "D," improbably enough, is for "Doctor," which was his given name.) Vice President Chester Arthur, a little-respected political hack (sort of a 19th-century Sarah Palin, but with even less experience) who is on the ticket only out of the desire to placate a powerful Senator, is horrified when he and his patron are suspected of being involved in the assassination.

Garfield has become one of the blurry group of minor presidents we don't often think about, but Millard makes a strong case that his assassination was a great loss, and he might have gone on to achieve important things; if nothing else, he would likely have been a tremendously unifying leader during the difficult Reconstruction era. It's a marvelous story, an obscure corner of American history which Millard uncovers for us in fine style. The writing is crisp and clear, and the parallel stories of Garfield and Guiteau draw sharp portraits of both men.

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