Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield was President of the United States for a mere 200 days. Most Americans know that he was the victim of an assassin's bullet, but how many know that his death need not have happened and even that it was caused by the doctors who treated him. Candice Millard has written a most fascinating and intriguing account of the rise of Garfield, his selection as presidential nominee and his subsequent election. The preponderance of the book, however, is centered on the assassination attempt and the treatment Garfield endured for 80 days.

Garfield was the last of our presidents to be born in a log cabin. He lived in dire poverty, losing his father before he was two years old. His mother worked a farm and he worked diligently at his studies. After a brief try at nautical pursuit, he entered Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, which later became Hiram College. From there he went to and graduated from Williams College. He was an outstanding scholar and was an incredible classicist. He was also an accomplished debater. He returned to Ohio where he became and instructor and eventually the president of Western Reserve E.I. He served in the Ohio state senate, the Civil War, and, eventually, in the U.S. Senate. His rise to power and the respect he earned from his colleagues in the Senate is inspirational. As I read this, I longed for a politician today who would be as down-to-earth and honest as Garfield. At the 1880 Republican National Convention neither Grant, Sherman, or Blaine could muster a majority and Garfield became the compromise candidate.

Enter Charles Guiteau. Millard goes into great detail about this main who was a preacher, member of the Oneida Community, lawyer and really mentally unstable. He stalked Garfield until he gained the confidence of shooting him because he was not given a political appointment What ensued was one of the most abhorrent cases of medical treatment in recorded history. Despite the findings of Joseph Lister about antisepsis and germ theory, Garfield's doctor, Dr. Doctor William Bliss, did not heed the practices. He allowed the President to become more ill each day, but assured the press and the public that Garfield was on the mend. Even Alexander Graham Bell became involved in trying to assist in the treatment, but was denied access to refine his theories.

The chronicle of the the last days of Garfield's life is as compelling as it is mournful. Eventually, Garfield was moved to Elberon, New Jersey to take advantage of the sea air. It was to no avail and he died there on 19 September. Garfield was on his way to becoming one of our most effective presidents and to have his life cut so short by malpractice was despicable. Millard concludes her narrative with the fate of Guiteau and the succession of Chester Arthur to the Presidency. 

This book was engrossing; it's story read like fiction, but was powerfully real. Millard is an intense researcher, the book incredibly documented. She was just as engaging as a speaker - articulate and chock full of anecdotes. Her first book was River of Doubt, a narrative of Theodore Roosevelt's trip to the Amazon. It will be on my "to read" list shortly. She is currently working on a biography of Winston Churchill and his escape from a POW camp during the Boer War. I volunteer to be her research assistant!

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