Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: Destiny of the Republic

Through a combination of an assassin's bullet, medical ignorance, and ego,  President James Garfield's life was stolen from the American public.  Candace Millard's book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and Murder of a President reads like any great crime thriller.  I am so happy to have read it, while at the same time I am astonished a little ashamed that I knew so little about this great man.

From chapter to chapter, Millard shifts back and forth between the early life and political rise of self-made man James Garfield and the maddening and deadbeat path of soon-to-be Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau.  These parallel journeys couldn't be any more opposite.

Even as a reader, long before Garfield and Guiteau ever meet I found myself fascinated by one and despising the other. 

Garfield raised in impoverished conditions worked with his hands and taught himself Latin as an adolescent.  He talked his way into college by offering to be the school's custodian in an exchange to take classes.  Soon excelling in college, he was asked to teach...years later he would become president of the college.  From janitor's closet to president--hard not to like this man.

A shrewd general in the Civil War, Lincoln called him to his side, took him off the battlefield, and heeded his counsel--while accepting this duty, sat poorly with General Garfield who wanted to be with his men.

Garfield, married, had several children and loved being a family man--he played often with his children and loved reading to them.  A voracious reader himself, he developed a friendship with the Librarian of Congress so that he could have first crack at all of the new titles delivered to the Library of Congress.

Serving several terms as a congressmen he earned the sterling reputation as a great orator and as a level-headed and fair man.  As a reader, it is easy to understand why the men and women of his generation, of all races, admired James Garfield.

I was astonished to learn that he didn't even want to run for the Presidency.  Greatness was thrust upon him--upon giving a nomination speech for a friend at the Republican Convention, Garfield told the crowd, "we have to ask ourselves what we want."  A single voice sparked what was to become a great conglomeration of Garfield being shoved into the White House--out in the crowd, a lone voice yelled, "We want Garfield!"  The crowd roared its approval and the rest is history.

Even with the nomination, he didn't even campaign...and still won.  How beloved and respect are you if you do not seek the Republican nomination and then upon receiving it anyway, do not campaign for the Presidency?

Remarkable.  The untold story of THAT man is only gleaned here--but it is here and the bits and pieces you will gather about the respect many felt for Garfield are all equally riveting.

Only halfway through the book I recommended it to my father, and I caught myself speeding home after work on Friday to finish the last half of the book before dinner.

On the other hand, Millard traces the life of soon-to-be assassin Charles Guiteau.  Raised by a religious zealot, Guiteau spent a significant amount of time in a commune in the state of New York, left to become a traveling preacher, wrote a book about religion which he plagiarized from another published book, slept and ate in hotels and boarding houses yet always skipped out on the bill.  He begged and borrowed money from anyone and everyone he met--never paying anyone back.  He took everything from others--and we learn that included the 20th President of the United States.

Struggling to be a decent human being, Guiteau got it into his head that he was owed a political office by Garfield and simply traveled to Washington to gain it.  With little formal education or any work experience, he believed others owed him.

The journeys of these two polar opposites intersect in the dilapidated and long-neglected White House, then freely open to public--anyone could present themselves to sit and talk to the President.  Guiteau sat in the White House day after day--he followed the President seemingly everywhere--he told everyone he met that he helped put Garfield in the White House, that constituents were friends of his, and that he would be receiving an appointment as an envoy to France--any day now.

By the way, the Secret Service at the time did not protect the President.  They spent their time tracking down counterfeiters.  Politicians were open and unprotected.

Guiteau wrote letters and notes to Garfield and his cabinet on expensive hotel stationary or from official White House stationary which he would brazenly ask for...and receive!  All the while, living the life of a deadbeat--his clothes becoming more threadbare and tattered--he fell deeper and deeper into a vitriol for anyone who did not help him.  In his rubber sandals he is said to have presented a rather disagreeable and creepy image.

Of course, Guiteau does not gain the political appointment.  When all doors seem to be closing around him, he claims to have had a dream that God told him to remove Garfield from office--Garfield blocked his way in to a political office.  Once he took care of Garfield, Vice President Chester Arthur would be thrilled and grateful and would send the Army to the prison to release Guiteau in a great display of American fanfare and gratitude.

These two parallel lives are but a slice of Millard's book.  Garfield's journey also intersects with Alexander Graham Bell and (frustratingly) doesn't quite intersect with Joseph Lister (pioneer of antiseptic surgery).  At the time of Garfield's shooting, many physicians still did not believe in germs and did not wash themselves, their coats, or their instruments.  As a matter of fact, several physicians shoved dirty fingers into Garfield's bullet wound--doing more harm than the bullet which science proved was not a fatal shot.

Even after being shot in the back, he didn't have to die.

My review focused mainly on the remarkable Garfield himself but so much of this book latches on to the stalking of the President by Guiteau and the subsequent bumbling of the President's medical condition after the shooting.  I reiterate, as Millard does, he didn't have to die--his death owes as much to the fault of medical malpractice and ignorance as much as it does to the assassin's bullet.

Several times throughout the book I was struck by the tenderness in which the American public handled the ailing Garfield.  You get the sense that people were saddened and sickened not that it was an attack on America the country, but that it was an attack on a great human being--a good man who reminded many of themselves, or at the very least a man who many admired, loved, and strove to emulate.

I am absolutely humbled by the kind of man that Garfield proved himself to be.  Millard discovers that as his death settled into the American public, some in Garfield's inner circle feared that generations would forget just how beloved, respected, and sorely missed he was.  Millard goes a long way to ensuring that Garfield along with his gentility, promise, and resolute nature is honored. 

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