Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard

Today I'm looking at a book that's part biography, part larger history, and focuses around the events of the assassination of President James Garfield just a handful of months into his term in 1881. Despite initially surviving the bullet and clinging to life for several weeks, Garfield eventually died of massive internal infection leaving Chester A. Arthur, a man nobody had expected to be president, in the White House. In addition to talking about Garfield, this book focuses on the life of his assassin, Charles Giteau, who was not a sane individual by any stretch of the imagination. The aftereffects of this assassination are also important to American history both in what happened and what didn't happen as a result.

James Garfield was a politician from Ohio who did not expect to be nominated for president in 1880. To the very end, Garfield remained loyal to Senator John Sherman of Ohio who he had pledged his vote. The 1880 Republican convention was seeking a new candidate, after the ignominy of Rutherford B. Hayes's electoral victory in 1876 and was divided between three candidates. Ulysses S. Grant, although having already served two terms, was supported by the machine politicians but was opposed by James G. Blaine who was favored by those who supported reform. Finally John Sherman brought up the rear for those dissatisfied with either candidate. Eventually Garfield was selected as a compromise candidate, despite his loud protestations that he did not desire the candidacy. Reluctantly Garfield found himself the nominee, and eventually elected as president of the United States.

According to Millard and her sources, Garfield was a highly respected member of the Republican party at the time, even when he was only a junior congressman from Ohio his oratory skills were lauded by his colleagues. Garfield presents a wonderful opportunity of what could have been because of his political skill, his personality, and his desire for government reform and racial equality. Had Garfield been able to serve even just one full presidential term he might be remembered as far more than a presidential footnote.

Guiteau, by contrast, did not lead a very successful life and considering his mental illness this is not much of a surprise. And based on what Millard described, Guiteau definitely qualifies for some sort of personality disorder, although since I'm not a psychologist I can't define it with any precision. Guiteau spent much of his life wandering from place to place, unable to hold down a job, and trying to avoid creditors. Guiteau spent much of his life borrowing money from acquaintances, promising to pay it back once he got a check that was due to him any day now and purchasing many items for a down payment and failing to pay the remainder of the bill, as well as fleeing from boarding houses in the middle of the night. Most importantly, Guiteau suffered from persistent delusions. Guiteau believed that god had designated him for some special purpose and that a speech Guiteau had written (and had never delivered) was critical to getting Garfield elected. As a result, Guiteau assumed that a duly grateful Garfield would appoint him to some high office, first a consulate in Vienna and later as the general consul in Paris.

Garfield and his staff, receiving the letters and visits from a man who they deemed no more than an eccentric and persistent nuisance of an office seeker, simply stalled him until Blaine, now secretary of state, finally grew tired of Guiteau's inquiries and told him to stop asking about the Paris consulate. Guiteau, taken aback by these remarks, turned on Garfield and his administration and came to believe that god had told him to kill Garfield, ensuring a change in administration for which he would be duly rewarded. Finally, on July 2nd of 1881, Guiteau succeeded in shooting Garfield in the back at the Baltimore and Potomac train station.

The most tragic irony of all of this is that Garfield probably would have survived this assassination attempt and, if he had lived in the modern era, he'd probably be up and walking after a few days in the hospital. Although the bullet had shattered ribs and nicked an artery, it came safely to a rest behind Garfield's pancreas and even without the bullet being removed he probably would have survived. However, due to the unsanitary medical practices of the time, Garfield ended up with a terminal case of internal gangrene and quite literally rotted from the inside out.

Immediately after he was shot, Garfield was carried upstairs in the train station and several doctors probed the president's wound. Some utilized their bare hands, and some utilized a variety of probes, but none of these objects were sterilized before being inserted into the president. Germ theory and the process of sterilization had been relatively new developments to medical science and largely considered false by Americans. The idea that tiny, invisible creatures could make people sick and just by washing your hands and instruments in carbolic acid could prevent this seemed fairly suspicious to them at the time. After Garfield's agonizing death, and the revelation that he had died not from the bullet, but rather from sepsis, American medical science quickly began to accept that maybe there was something to this germ theory after all. However it would take the assassination of William McKinley for the American public to begin to think that maybe the president needed some protection and not just anyone could walk right into the White House.

Overall I thought this book was really interesting. There are a lot of different tangents to this book, such as Alexander Graham Bell (who I hadn't mentioned in the review) who developed a metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet and help save Garfield's life. However, I think they all manage to work together quite well and the result is a satisfactory book. It is interesting to learn about a president that isn't frequently talked about because of the short time he spent in office and Guiteau makes an interesting character by himself. If you're interested in nineteenth century America and learning more about one of the ''placeholder'' presidents or medical science at the time, this book is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

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