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We’ve had four presidents die at the hands of an assassin. Two of them, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy suffered wounds that made recovery impossible. But James A. Garfield and William McKinley could have made full recoveries.

President James Garfield

President James Garfield

I’m in the middle of reading Candice Millard’s book on the Garfield assassination, entitled Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. Millard makes the case, that if proper medical procedures of sanitation had been followed, Garfield would have probably lived. As early as 1865, Joseph Lister had shown that proper sanitation in surgery, including sterilization of instruments, washing of hands, etc. cut down or eliminated infection.

Garfield was shot in July 1881 and died of infection in September—it was not the bullet that killed him, it was the ineptitude of his doctors.

President William McKinley

President William McKinley

The same can be said of William McKinley, who was shot on September 6, 1901 and died on September 14th because his wound became gangrenous.

Garfield was one of the most brilliant men to occupy the office of president. McKinley, often overshadowed by his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was in his second term of what promised to be a very successful presidency.

What If?

What if Garfield had lived? We’d have never had Chester Arthur as a president. The Stalwarts would have been dealt a severe blow, but they kind of died out under Arthur anyway—even though Arthur was a Stalwart, when he succeeded Garfield he determined to carry on Garfield’s policies. I think the big difference in our history would have been the 1884 election. Garfield was wildly popular and would have had a second term, calling into question if Grover Cleveland would have ever been president. A popular Garfield second term could have lead to a James G. Blaine presidency. A Blaine presidency, had it lasted 8 years would have lead to the the election of 1896, or William McKinley.

What if McKinley had lived? He would have been president until the election of 1904, and one must believe that the irrepressible Theodore Roosevelt would have become president then, serving two terms until 1912. The election of 1912 would have looked very different, as Roosevelt would not have been running as a third party candidate, dividing the electorate. Perhaps TR would have run for a third term, making him president when World War I began.

Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic

All of this, of course is just speculation because two men, Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz set things in motion that ended the lives of two of our most promising public officials. I say set things in motion because their bullets did not kill Garfield and McKinley. Inept doctors and the limits of medical science at the time killed Garfield and McKinley.

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