|Cover of Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, 2011.|
|Author Candice Millard.|
James A. Garfield is one of the more obscure presidents in the history of the United States. He was president for slightly less than four months when he was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office-seeker. Garfield still lived for two and a half months after Guiteau’s assassination attempt, before dying on September 19th, 1881. In her 2011 book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, author Candice Millard gives us a fuller picture of the life and death of James A. Garfield. Destiny of the Republic is not a full-scale biography of Garfield, but there is enough background material to get a sense of his personality, and Garfield emerges from the shadows of history as a noble, intelligent, hard-working man who might have gone down in history as a fine president were it not for Guiteau’s bullet-or, rather, the constant interference of Garfield’s doctors.
Throughout the book, Millard switches between Garfield, Guiteau, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone who attempted to invent an “induction balance” that would help the doctors locate the bullet inside of Garfield. Like Erik Larson, Millard is able to convey a tension in the narrative, despite the fact that we know how the story will end. Millard thoroughly immerses the reader in the political battles of the 1870’s and 1880’s, at a time when the Republican Party was tearing itself apart over patronage and the “spoils system.” Men like James A. Garfield, who were against patronage, were nicknamed “Half-Breeds,” while “Stalwarts” like Chester A. Arthur supported the status quo. At the Republican National Convention in 1880, the fight was between former President Ulysses S. Grant, the favorite of the Stalwarts, and James G. Blaine, the leading Half-Breed candidate. Garfield was not a candidate for president, and he gave a nominating speech for John Sherman, the younger brother of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. However, Garfield’s speech proved to be such a hit that the deadlocked convention ended up turning to him as the party’s nominee. To placate the Stalwarts, Chester A. Arthur was chosen as the Vice-Presidential candidate.
After Garfield won the 1880 election, Charles Guiteau thought that he should become the ambassador to France. Guiteau had a long history of erratic behavior, and absolutely no qualifications for holding an ambassadorship. After he was rebuffed numerous times by Garfield and Blaine, who was now Secretary of State, Guiteau decided that, as a committed Stalwart, he really needed Chester A. Arthur in office so he could take up his rightful position. Guiteau stalked Garfield for weeks, and since the president didn’t really have any security, it was not difficult for Guiteau to wait for Garfield at the Washington, D.C. train station and shoot him in the back. Interesting tidbit: the Baltimore and Potomac train station where Garfield was shot has been torn down, and the National Gallery of Art is now on that spot.
Unlike all of the other successful presidential assassins, who were all in their 20’s when they committed their crime; Guiteau was 39 years old when he shot Garfield. Guiteau was a longtime scam artist who traveled from town to town giving religious speeches and leaving town before his hotel bills were due. Guiteau was under the mistaken impression that Americans would thank him for shooting Garfield, and he also thought that he was being taken to jail for his own protection, and would eventually be released. Of course, that didn’t happen. After Garfield’s death, Guiteau went on trial for his murder, was found guilty, and was hanged on June 30, 1882.
So, how did Garfield die? Well, back in those days, American doctors didn’t believe in the germ theory, or Dr. Joseph Lister’s ideas about having a sterile operating room. Because of this, multiple doctors probed Garfield’s wound in his back with their unwashed hands in their futile search to find the bullet. This introduced an infection, and it was this infection that eventually killed Garfield. Not a pleasant way to go. The main culprit was Doctor D. Willard Bliss, who proclaimed himself in charge of Garfield’s care. (The D in his name actually stood for Doctor.) Bliss was, well, blissfully unaware of Dr. Lister’s ideas, and kept insisting that he knew what was best for Garfield, even as the president was dying. Millard does an excellent job of detailing all of the medical malpractice surrounding Garfield’s illness.
Millard paints a vivid picture throughout the book of James A. Garfield as a man of great principle. However, one of the surprises of Destiny of the Republic is that Garfield’s successor, Chester A. Arthur, who in the beginning of the book has all of the backbone of a chocolate éclair, ends up coming into his own as president. Arthur became a strong supporter of civil service reform, leading to the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883.
Destiny of the Republic is an excellent book if you’re interested in an overlooked period of American history. Unfortunately, the book sheds no light on why Garfield loved lasagna so much, or his seemingly irrational hatred of Mondays.