Pros:outstanding in every respect!
Cons:brought tears to my eyes
The Bottom Line: President Garfield brought union together in grief and his death caused important political changes, though not presidential protection...
America’s twentieth president, James Abram Garfield, was never a candidate, never campaigned nor wanted the job. He believed that a consuming desire for power corrupted and ruined an otherwise good man, but the very fragmented Republican party of 1880 enthusiastically ended up making him their candidate, anyway. At that time there were two kinds of Republicans, the status quo Stalwarts and progressive Half-Breeds. Garfield was of the latter kind and when he became president, he gave offices according to merit and not party. Unfortunately a madman on a mission from God shot him five months into his term. He wanted Garfield out of the way so that his Stalwart Vice President (chosen for him) would become president. Though Garfield didn’t die from the bullet, his doctors finished him off after two horrible months of unsanitary, misguided medical practice and historian Candice Millard tells the fascinating story in 2011’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.
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Maybe you’re wondering why this story should be so fascinating, let alone an important one. It’s because Garfield didn’t need to die. British and European doctors had accepted Dr. Joseph Lister’s sanitary medical methods with carbolic acid, but the established American doctors scoffed at the idea of germs and prided themselves on being as filthy as possible. It’s because the madman tried to get off by pleading not guilty by reason of insanity and we’re taken into the courtroom to hear what went down. It’s because Garfield’s successor, Chester Arthur, was one of the most inept, weak vice presidents ever, simply a stool pigeon of a power-hungry senator, and cried in isolation during Garfield’s illness, but became his own man following Garfield’s lead.
Most importantly it’s because Garfield’s lingering illness brought together all of America in grief. Northerners and Southerners, whites and black, stood in vigil outside the White House or before the huge billboards with updates on his condition. They all loved him because he grew up in poverty, became an outstanding scholar, supported abolition and education to help unite the union, and seemed like one of them. He stood up for them and for civil service reform. It would be Arthur who passed the law getting rid of the spoils system that Americans demanded as a result of Garfield’s death.
Destiny of the Republic very convincingly reveals that Garfield was a most articulate, engaging fellow who would’ve been a great president and my eyes were moist as he lay dying with nobody able to do anything. How I wish he had been assertive in his care, but he and the first lady allowed themselves to be cowed by Abe Lincoln’s doctor, Willard Bliss, who hoped to regain his reputation through curing this president. Unfortunately he was the problem and a young critic commented later that “Ignorance is Bliss!” Heh. The great inventor Alexander Graham Bell exhausted himself inventing a precursor to the X-ray machine using an Induction Balance contraption, but was unable to find Garfield’s bullet because Bliss allowed him to only check one side of his patient’s back. The autopsy stunned him and his colleagues and he never regained his reputation. I’m glad. He tortured that poor, brave man.
I learned about this book at my public library where it’s possibly, hopefully the winner of the One Book, One Lincoln contest...Millard’s years of research paid off in a big way with a very compelling story that combines a madman’s search for his purpose in life, a president’s unwilling acceptance of a job that challenged him to a fight with enemies, and an insightful portrait of post-Civil War America. Her notes, acknowledgments and bibliography are extensive. It has four sections (Promise, War, Fear, Tortured For The Republic, the latter of which was muttered by Garfield), an epilogue and 260 pages of text.
Destiny of the Republic is one of those rare books that I soon realize after beginning it will be a five-star book. If you’re a history buff like I am, you will love it as much. Millard is interviewed about it on amazon.com.
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