Friday, January 13, 2012

The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

By Candice Millard
New York, Doubleday, 2011
352 pages   Non-Fiction

James Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin, and the president to serve the second shortest term in office, only 200 days. (The shortest term in office having been served by William Henry Harrison, who only served 31 days.) He was one of the only presidents to go directly from the House of Representatives to the presidency, and probably the only president who didn’t seek nomination nor did he want to be president. 

In The Destiny of the Republic,Candice Millard recounts Garfield’s unlikely rise to the presidency from a farm in Ohio to his death in September of 1881, at the hand of an assassin. Garfield was a brilliant man, a college president at the age of 26, and a congressman from Ohio for 9 terms. At the contentious 1880 Republican convention in Chicago, he rose to nominate another politician, and the delegates suddenly latched onto him as a potential candidate. He begged to have his name removed from consideration, but the delegates would have none of it and he was nominated on the thirty-sixth ballot. 

President James Garfield
Garfield was a good man and likely a good choice. His place in history, however, is primarily marked by his assassination. He worked hard to eliminate cronyism from federal office, fought for equal rights for freed slaves, and created opportunities for the restoration of the South. In the days before personal safety precautions for Presidents, Garfield had open office hours and spent what he felt was an inordinate amount of time interviewing office seekers. One of the people he saw frequently among the office seekers turned out to be his assassin, Charles Guiteau.

Charles Guiteau
Millard also tells the story of Guiteau and his quest to become the Counsel General to France, a job he felt he was owed because he had made a speech in support of Garfield during the election campaign. His story is equally as fascinating as Garfield’s, and Millard paints a picture of a man who probably was bright enough but had no sense of reality and never took responsibility for the act that caused the President’s death. A reviewer recapitulates this part of the narrative: “Guiteau, whose story has also been much overlooked, made no secret of his plotting. In a letter explaining his plans to the American people, he reasoned: ‘It will be no worse for Mrs. Garfield, to part with her husband this way, than by natural death. He is liable to go at any time anyway.’ He scouted jails, deciding where he wanted to be incarcerated. He left instructions (“please order out your troops”) for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who would be marshalling troops for Guiteau. They protected the assassin from being killed by a mob before he could go to trial.” 

Guiteau’s story is bizarre, to say the least. I happened to be reading the chapters about how he plotted the assassination while the US was commemorating the one year anniversary of the attempt on Congresswoman Gifford’s life. When you look at that would-be assassin’s face, you get a feel for how Guiteau must have looked and acted. I remember reading about Guiteau in Sarah Vowell’s delightfully ironic book, Assassination Vacation. He also plays a prominent role in Steven Sondheim’s musical Assassins

The two most tragic aspects of Garfield’s assassination, both described vividly in The Destiny of the Republic are: 1) that Garfield did not die from the attempt but by medical malpractice, and 2) that the death accomplished nothing. Millard writes: “In no man’s mind save the assassin’s had the shooting achieved anything. It had not been carried out in the name of personal or political freedom, national unity, or even war. It had addressed no wrong, been the consequence of no injustice.”

The description of the day of the assassination is particularly compelling. Millard plots the day like a battle scene, each character moving forward until the fatal moment. I couldn’t put the book down. The scenes at the White House as Garfield lay in pain, slowly dying, attended by a totally incompetent and ego maniacal physician make the reader want to scream, “Wash your hands!!! Don’t you know you are killing him?”
 Equally fascinating is the description of Alexander Graham Bell attempting to invent a metal detector to find the bullet lodged in Garfield’s body. And then—the reader’s heart breaks as Garfield is transported by special train to the beach, so that he can die gazing at the sea.

This book is a gripping look at a little-remembered part of American history. I wondered about what Garfield’s impact might have been on the national psyche if he had lived and had continued to work for equal rights and against political chicanery.

Millard is also the author of a book about a forgotten moment in Theodore Roosevelt’s life, The River of Doubt. I am so enthralled with this wonderful new way of writing non-fiction in a narrative fashion, bringing in all the historical elements at play. The Destiny of the Republic is an excellent example of the genre. I highly recommend it. The book has also been recommended on many lists of the best non-fiction books of 2011.

Two excellent reviews in The New York Times:
Candice Millard’s website:

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