Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. ‘Destiny of the Republic’ by Candice Millard

 

On July 2, 1881, James A. Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau in the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station in Washington, D.C. Unlike the bullet wounds suffered by Abraham Lincoln, a mere 16 years earlier, these wounds were not fatal. The first shot passed through Garfield’s right arm before embedding itself harmlessly in the wall. The second shot entered his back four inches from his spinal column, traveled downward ten inches, then came to rest behind his pancreas. What became immediately apparent upon his autopsy was that Garfield’s death, two months later on September 19, was the direct result of the medical care he received.

The first half of the book is a twin biography of Garfield and Guiteau. The assassination takes place at roughly the midway point in the narrative. Born into abject poverty in Ohio in 1831, Garfield’s father died when he was only two years old. His mother and older brother recognized his intelligence and aptitude as a student and made provisions for him to continue his education, rather than go to work when he came of age. During his first year of college, Garfield made money as a janitor and working with a local carpenter. In his second year of college, he was named an associate professor and taught six classes in addition to his own studies. At just 26, he was named president of the university. What followed was a rise to Civil War general, congressman, and state senator before finally being named the Republican Party’s compromise candidate on the 36th ballot at the 1880 convention.

The second half of the book goes into excruciating detail of the medical care and ignorance and egotism of the doctors who treated Garfield over the two months after his shooting. They dismissed the ideas of antisepsis pioneered by Dr. Joseph Lister, whose practices at his own hospital greatly reduced deaths caused by post-surgical infections. Garfield’s wounds and treatments are told graphically and may make some readers squeamish.

Told in vivid, energetic prose, Candice Millard paints a portrait of Garfield as an energetic man with a booming laugh and love of life. He practically leaps off the page and readers are left bereft at his downturn after his shooting. Told in equally great detail is the delusions and madness of Guiteau. Garfield’s assassin is rendered with great depth by a skilled storyteller.

While the book is strong on personalities, very little is told of Garfield’s politics. He was an abolitionist and supporter of civil service reform. After his death, the cause of reform found a champion and a sweeping overhaul was signed into law by Chester Arthur, whose entire political career was a product of patronage. It was not Millard’s focus when writing the book, so it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. Readers who want to know about the policies of Garfield’s short six-month term will have to look elsewhere.

Overall, Destiny of the Republic is a spirited tale of a forgotten president and scathing indictment of the ignorance of late 19th-century medical care. I listened to this on audiobook and highly recommend the performance by Paul Michael.

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There are 13 comments.

  1. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    Sounds interesting I read a biography of Polk last year.

     

    There is no question that the medical care was abysmal. 1881 was well after Lister’s publication in Lancet. There was limited acceptance, although people like Florence Nightingale and John Snow accepted the existence of infectious disease before Lister. Wound sepsis and antisepsis was a slow process. Semmelweiss famously failed to convince the doctors at Vienna Krankenhaus of their role in postpurperal sepsis. Halsted moved from New York to Baltimore in 1889 to get away from surgeons that rejected cleanliness, let alone antisepsis. It was the 1890s before anti-sepsis was widely accepted in America. There was considerable resistance in England even after that. I have a book I wrote about 1998 that is still selling a few copies at Amazon that tells the story. The Mayo brothers’ father was a reluctant user of anti-sepsis and many of these men had pretty good results with just cleanliness.

    https://www.amazon.com/Brief-History-Disease-Science-Medicine/dp/0974946656/

     

    • #1
    • January 19, 2020, at 10:45 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  2. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    A very good book. Saw the author on CSPAN say the more she researched Garfield the more he reminded her of her father. She really liked the man.

    • #2
    • January 19, 2020, at 3:17 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. Blackford Oakes Member
    Blackford Oakes

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    A very good book. Saw the author on CSPAN say the more she researched Garfield the more he reminded her of her father. She really liked the man.

    Very cool. I might have to see if I can find that online. You can definitely tell the affection in her writing.

    • #3
    • January 19, 2020, at 3:51 PM PST
    • 1 like
  4. Bob Thompson Member

    I read a book about the period leading up to Garfield’s nomination and election. I believe he was the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to be elected POTUS and it took the most ever ballots (cycles of delegates voting) in the convention for his nomination. I don’t know the story of his medical treatment.

    • #4
    • January 19, 2020, at 7:18 PM PST
    • 1 like
  5. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    I read that book a few years ago, and — apart from horror at Garfield’s appalling medical treatment — the book mainly left me with the impression that Garfield might well be the best man ever elected president. It can’t be said that he was a great president, because he wasn’t given a chance. But he was a highly intelligent and moral man with a profound sense of duty and love of country; he had no interest in being president and did not seek the office, but when it seemed clear that the country needed him to step in, he allowed himself to be drafted.

    There’s no guarantee that, had he lived, his presidency would have lived up to such promise. But it is deeply tragic that such a capable and decent man, who became a target only because of his selfless willingness to serve his country, should be cut down for no reason at all. What a waste.

    • #5
    • January 19, 2020, at 8:32 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  6. Blackford Oakes Member
    Blackford Oakes

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    … he was the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to be elected POTUS..

    That’s right. He still holds that distinction.

    • #6
    • January 20, 2020, at 6:15 AM PST
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  7. Blackford Oakes Member
    Blackford Oakes

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    I read that book a few years ago, and — apart from horror at Garfield’s appalling medical treatment — the book mainly left me with the impression that Garfield might well be the best man ever elected president. It can’t be said that he was a great president, because he wasn’t given a chance. But he was a highly intelligent and moral man with a profound sense of duty and love of country; he had no interest in being president and did not seek the office, but when it seemed clear that the country needed him to step in, he allowed himself to be drafted.

    I had the same impression. Politically, his only legacy is probably the civil service reform enacted after his death. That in itself transformed the country a great deal in the late Nineteenth Century. Outside of that, the number of inventions created to help Garfield, from the air conditioner to Alexander Graham Bell’s induction balance (early metal detector), was fascinating.

     

    • #7
    • January 20, 2020, at 6:18 AM PST
    • 1 like
  8. Ray Kujawa Coolidge

    I enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. One thing that stood out to me was at that time candidates did not go out campaigning — it was considered unseemly. It was left the to the candidate’s supporters to make the case for him.

    • #8
    • January 22, 2020, at 12:17 AM PST
    • Like
  9. danok1 Member

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    I read that book a few years ago, and — apart from horror at Garfield’s appalling medical treatment — the book mainly left me with the impression that Garfield might well be the best man ever elected president. It can’t be said that he was a great president, because he wasn’t given a chance. But he was a highly intelligent and moral man with a profound sense of duty and love of country; he had no interest in being president and did not seek the office, but when it seemed clear that the country needed him to step in, he allowed himself to be drafted.

    There’s no guarantee that, had he lived, his presidency would have lived up to such promise. But it is deeply tragic that such a capable and decent man, who became a target only because of his selfless willingness to serve his country, should be cut down for no reason at all. What a waste.

    Bartholomew beat to the comment I was going to make. A great book and intro to a fascinating, well accomplished man. I think the presidency may well have been below his abilities.

    • #9
    • January 22, 2020, at 4:57 AM PST
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  10. Blackford Oakes Member
    Blackford Oakes

    Ray Kujawa (View Comment):

    I enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. One thing that stood out to me was at that time candidates did not go out campaigning — it was considered unseemly. It was left the to the candidate’s supporters to make the case for him.

    That was fairly standard practice. While listening to that part of the book, I tried to remember when campaigning became the standard practice for presidents. Maybe someone on Ricochet knows.

    • #10
    • January 22, 2020, at 6:21 AM PST
    • Like
  11. danok1 Member

    Blackford Oakes (View Comment):

    Ray Kujawa (View Comment):

    I enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. One thing that stood out to me was at that time candidates did not go out campaigning — it was considered unseemly. It was left the to the candidate’s supporters to make the case for him.

    That was fairly standard practice. While listening to that part of the book, I tried to remember when campaigning became the standard practice for presidents. Maybe someone on Ricochet knows.

    According to this Wikipedia page (yes, I know), the last Presidential candidate to run a “front porch campaign” was Harding in 1920. But TR, Wilson, Bryan, et. al., ran what we would recognize as “modern” campaigns.

    • #11
    • January 22, 2020, at 7:29 AM PST
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  12. JamesSalerno Coolidge

    Blackford Oakes (View Comment):

    Ray Kujawa (View Comment):

    I enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. One thing that stood out to me was at that time candidates did not go out campaigning — it was considered unseemly. It was left the to the candidate’s supporters to make the case for him.

    That was fairly standard practice. While listening to that part of the book, I tried to remember when campaigning became the standard practice for presidents. Maybe someone on Ricochet knows.

    William Henry Harrison had a song in the 1840 campaign!

    McKinley didn’t go out and campaign, but he popularized “front porch campaigning” where those interested would literally travel up to his front porch to hear his campaign speech. Three time loser (McKinley twice and Taft) William Jennings Bryan went out and made stump speeches to appeal to populists around the same time.

    It’s somewhat hard to find at a reasonable price now, but I recommend Allan Peskin’s Garfield from 1978. The book covers Garfield’s entire life in detail including his very brief presidency. It also provides an interesting look at Guiteau. Guiteau actually lived at a Utopian Socialist commune right down the road from where I grew up, but he was too crazy for even them, so they kicked him out. He also took credit for getting Garfield elected for….. some reason. As Millard’s book details, the lack of proper medical care is almost equally to blame for Garfield’s death as his assassin. But presidential security can also be blamed. It wasn’t until McKinley’s assassination that Washington realized they needed to step up their security game since these presidents kept getting assassinated.

    • #12
    • January 22, 2020, at 9:16 AM PST
    • Like
  13. Blackford Oakes Member
    Blackford Oakes

    JamesSalerno (View Comment):

    It’s somewhat hard to find at a reasonable price now, but I recommend Allan Peskin’s Garfield from 1978. The book covers Garfield’s entire life in detail including his very brief presidency. It also provides an interesting look at Guiteau. Guiteau actually lived at a Utopian Socialist commune right down the road from where I grew up, but he was too crazy for even them, so they kicked him out. He also took credit for getting Garfield elected for….. some reason.

    She goes into great detail about Guiteau’s life and the commune, etc. Part of him claiming credit for getting Garfield elected was a speech he wrote supporting John Sherman for president, but then crossed out Sherman’s name and inserted Garfield after Sherman failed to secure the nomination. He was certainly a nut.

    As Millard’s book details, the lack of proper medical care is almost equally to blame for Garfield’s death as his assassin. But presidential security can also be blamed. It wasn’t until McKinley’s assassination that Washington realized they needed to step up their security game since these presidents kept getting assassinated.

    Millard covers that, too. She even put it into context of other assassinations around the globe that happened at the same time, but Americans didn’t feel that it could happen here. Also, they thought there was something monarchical about having their leader being surrounded by armed guards. It was certainly a different era when Garfield could walk alone down the street to Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s house and the two of them walk back to the White House together.

    • #13
    • January 22, 2020, at 9:51 AM PST
    • 2 likes