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.Published in