Monday, November 21, 2011

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President / by Candice Millard

The irony was that James A. Garfield never wanted to be president. Born into rural poverty in Ohio in 1831, it wasn't an easy road for the future chief of staff who, much like Abraham Lincoln, had to self-educate himself early in life. Limited financially, Garfield would eventually earn a Bachelor's from Williams College in Massachussetts and then a law degree before being commissioned as an officer in the Civil War, rising to the rank of Major General by the time it was all finished. In 1862 Garfield, then only 31, obtained a congressional seat in the House of Representatives and thereafter figured prominently in politics, serving 9 consecutive terms until 1880. Yet all of his merits and conspicuous achievements were, by all accounts, mere window dressing. Garfield was a true public servant, one of the few men who lived to advance the ideals which the country stood for. Never swayed by crooked political machinery and always opposed to "place-seeking" and career advancement, his actions warranted a high degree of public scrutiny but also a hefty amount of sincere praise which culminated in his rather awkward nomination for the presidency in 1880. Despite his personal objection, Garfield eventually capitulated and, though never expected to actually win, campaigned alongside his running mate Chester A. Arthur for the Republican cause. When he did win it was considered a minor miracle and had more than a few people speculating that the new President was merely a puppet in a ruse cooked up by the delegates to get their real man, Arthur, into office.

One person certainly amused at the outcome of the election was Charles Guiteau. Having experienced many of the same setbacks in life as the President himself, the squirrely little man from Wisconsin had tried his hand at many an occupation only to fail or quit at all of them. Many, including Guiteau's own father, considered him insane and various attempts were unsuccessfully made to have him committed. Following the 1880 election, Guiteau, intending to solicit employment in the White House, began stalking Garfield in person. By 1881, after being turned down for an office on more than one occasion, Guiteau resolved it was God's will that he kill the President. On July 2 of the same year, after pursuing Garfield in secret for several months, he encountered the President and Secretary of State James Blaine at Baltimore train station whereupon he fired two rounds of a .44 British Bulldog pistol, one winging the arm of the President and the other piercing one of his lower vertebrae and lodging near his spleen.

Garfield wasn't immediately killed. In fact he initially stood a good chance of survival. Doctors worked around the clock to locate the bullet only to worsen the President's condition with unsanitary procedures and detrimental hygiene, ultimately resulting in an infection which hastened Garfield's death in September of 1881 nearly three months after his assassination attempt. Guiteau meanwhile was immediately apprehended and tried. He persistently maintained he was innocent of all charges, claiming he had only shot Garfield to make Arthur president. An insanity defense was not out of the question as all who stood witness to his trial could see he was clearly deranged. But in the end he was executed in front 2,000 spectators, all watching as the madman danced his way up to the scaffold to be hanged, shaking hands with the executioner and requesting that a poem he had written while in prison be read prior to his death. This, one of the more colorful, though tragic events of American history is certainly a story worth telling and carries lessons worth learning. Millard's previous work The River of Doubt, chronicling Teddy Roosevelt's post-Presidential Amazonian adventure, was highly successful, winning the Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. This latest outing is as entertaining though perhaps not as discretely rendered. Destiny of a Republic runs in the same vein but the story has so many different dimensions it's hard to find a seminal theme to latch on to. There's two vastly different men on a path to destruction, a country still in post-war turmoil, a shady political climate and then the tragedy involved with the medical negligence. That's not even including the interesting tidbits about Garfield's family life which included the death of two young children and the survival of an unlikely marriage to his wife Lucretia. Or even the potentially life saving efforts made on the part of Alexander Graham Bell whose influential inventions attempted to locate the bullet inside the president's body by remote detection. It's a worthy effort however by an author who's fascinated by her subject and mainstream readers as well as history buffs will be pleased with the riveting manner in which the events are brought to life. (973.84092 MILLARD)

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