Pop Quiz: Name the four presidents to have been assassinated in office.
Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, William McKinley, and . . . James A. Garfield. Everyone gets the first two; Lincoln’s death is one of the most important events in American history, and Kennedy was killed in public in modern times. McKinley isn’t as well known, but died in his 2nd term after having successfully concluded the Spanish-American War, plus his death brought Theodore Roosevelt into office. Garfield, well, did you even remember him? The shortness of his time in office – a few months – and the passage of time – 130 years – has obscured our nation’s collective memory of the ill-fated 20th president. Enter Candice Millard, author of the very enjoyable The River of Doubt, to rescue Garfield’s memory.
Garfield was born to a poor family in an Ohio, the last of the log cabin presidents. Extremely intelligent, by his 26th birthday Garfield had become president of a local college in Ohio. Then the Civil War arrived, wherein Garfield served with distinction until Lincoln himself asked him to come to Washington as a representative from Ohio. He would stay in the House for 15 years, building a reputation as an orator. His ultimate nomination at the 1880 Republican convention was a tremendous surprise. None of the primary contenders could garner the needed ballots, and Garfield, who hadn’t even been a candidate, suddenly captured the convention’s passion and swept to victory. Garfield did not want the nomination, and tried to have his name removed from the convention, but ultimately was carried along by the flood tide. After a fairly close election – in which Garfield campaigned in his normal manner by doing nothing – he took the oath of office in 1881. He would be president for 200 days.
The heart of the book is the shooting and attempted care of the dying president. Garfield was shot in a Washington train station by Charles Guiteau, a certified madman who attacked the president because he believed it was God’s retribution for not being granting the ambassadorship to France. Guiteau believed his actions would make him a hero to the nation at large. Several attempts to kill him in prison by outraged citizens, including one of his own guards, hardly shook his delusions. Even though clearly insane, he was executed less than a year later. Two hundred tickets were available to watch the execution; 25,000 requests arrived for them.
Guiteau shot Garfield in the arm and back, but neither shot was fatal. What was fatal was numerous doctors probing his wound with unwashed fingers and tools, and doing so repeatedly. At the time American medicine was largely opposed to the new practice of antiseptic cleanliness, believing it unnecessary. Thus in attempting to care for him his doctors introduced a massive infection that ultimately killed him after more than 2 months of needless suffering. On top of this Garfield tried to recover in the White House, which at the time had not been renovated in decades, had a malarial swamp in back, and rats running through the walls. Millard’s book here moves into true medical horror, and there are certain descriptions of Garfield’s suffering that will nauseate. Ultimately I was glad the longsuffering Garfield finally expired.
Millard keeps Destiny of the Republic moving at a quick pace. Many readers won’t know much of this sordid tale of murder and malpractice, rendering the story fresh and involving. The one complaint here is how important Millard believes this episode to be. The book conveys the idea that Garfield’s death was a tremendous tragedy for America. While true in the immediate sense – Americans followed every medical bulletin of Garfield’s situation with interest usually reserved for national sporting events – this view doesn’t hold up historically. Even Garfield’s wife realized that steps needed to be taken if her husband was not to be forgotten. America simply didn’t know what they had with Garfield – he hadn’t been around long enough to do anything. Even his assassin is pitiful; Guiteau had no mission or cause, he was just insane. Contentions like Millard’s that the event brought the nation together don’t altogether hold up. It is difficult to imagine former Confederates in the South being overly touched by the death of a Republican president who advocated full rights for blacks. The book itself argues unintentionally against the importance of the assassination. Millard spends much time discussing the history of antiseptic medicine and following the career of inventor Alexander Graham Bell (he attempted to build a metal detector to find the bullet in Garfield). It’s necessary to do this not just to give a reader the full story; there just isn’t enough to Garfield to make an interesting book.
But the above paragraph highlights a minor blemish of perspective. Destiny of the Republic is an enjoyable and moving read about a president who died horribly, yet maintained great dignity throughout his ordeal. It was his misfortune, and the nation’s, that he was never given a chance to show what he could do.
Code 451 Rating: 7.5 Good Read
By: James R. White