It is amazing how destiny can be altered by insanity and ego. Such is the tale in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. James Abram Garfield was a remarkable man and, I believe, would have been ranked among the best of our presidents had he fulfilled his term of office. An insane assassin, Charles Guiteau and an egomaniac physician, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, saw to it that Garfield’s life was cut short.
One can not help walking away from this book with a sense of loss. Loss for our country and what this man could have accomplished. The author does a fantastic job bringing James Garfield to life and making him a man, not an iconic figure on the landscape of our history.
For you see, Garfield was a rare politician. He was a man of faith and integrity, out of which grew uncommon wisdom, strength and conviction. Ironically, he did not want to be president, but the Republican convention of 1880 was so impressed with his reputation and the speech he gave nominating John Sherman, that they pressed him into the nomination. He became, in his life and in his death, the first president of the whole nation since the Civil War. In his death, the whole nation mourned, North and South alike.
The book is really an interweaving of the stories of four men: James Garfield, Charles Guiteau, Dr. Willard Bliss and Alexander Graham Bell. Millard weaves their story so skillfully that I felt like I was reading a novel.
Charles Guiteau was insane. A few passages from the book illustrate this fact:
To General Sherman:
I have just shot the president. I shot him several times, as I wished him to go easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with General Grant, and the rest our men in New York during the canvas. I am going to jail. Please order out your troops, and take possession of the jail at once.
Charles Guiteau 1
Thus we get a glimpse into the mind of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield.
On his way to jail after shooting Garfield…
…his mind was too preoccupied with the celebrity that awaited him. Sherman, he was confident, would soon receive his letter and send out the troops to free him, and Vice President (Chester) Arthur, overwhelmed with gratitude, would be eager to be of any assistance. 2
While in jail Guiteau wrote his autobiography…
Guiteau also used his autobiography to announce his candidacy for president, a decision he believed the American people would not only welcome but actively encourage. “For twenty years, I have had an idea that I should be President,” he wrote. “My idea is that I shall be nominated and elected as Lincoln and Garfield were–that is, by the act of God…. My object would be to unify the entire American people, and make them happy, prosperous and God-fearing. 3
Dr. D. Willard Bliss (the “D” was for “Doctor,” his first name) had an ego that left no room for other doctors to attend Garfield. Antiseptics were relatively new at the time, but Bliss did not believe in them. He wore his bloody apron as a badge of honor and he probed Garfield’s wound with unsterilized fingers and instruments. The resulting infections, including his blood, lead to Garfield’s death. Garfield’s wounds were not fatal. Had Bliss used antiseptics Garfield would have survived. Like Reagan, a hundred years later, Garfield would have been out of commission for a few weeks, but he would have lived. This was one thing that Guiteau got right when he proclaimed that Garfield’s doctors killed him, not Guiteau.
Although there were many deaths in the late nineteenth century that even the most skilled physicians had no ability to prevent, Garfield’s was not one of them. In fact, following his autopsy, it became immediately and painfully apparent that, far from preventing or even delaying the president’s death, his doctors very likely caused it. 4
This is one book I was sorry to end. A fascinating story, told with with clarity and conviction, this book should be on every history buff’s bookshelf.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the Garfield assassination brought about many firsts:
- Air conditioning: Finally, a corps of engineers from the navy and a small contingem of scientists, which included Garfield’s old friend, the famed explore and geologist John Wesley Powell, stepped in and designed what wong become the country’s first air conditioner. –p. 178
- Precursor to x–ray: Alexander Graham Bell’s induction balance, a device designed to find the bullet lodged in Garfield, would have probably worked if Garfield had not been on a box spring, full of metal, which was rare in that day.
- Media passes: Before the trial began at 10:00 a.m., a crush of people gathered outside the courtroom, clutching tickets and staring at the closed doors. Deputy marshals wearing bright red badges surrounded the throng, checking the authenticity of their tickets and examining media passes, which, “for the first time in anyone’s memory,”journalists were required to carry. –p. 238
- First Presidential Library: Lucretia’s (Garfield’s wife) first concern, however, was for her husband’s papers. She asked Joseph Stanley Brown for his help in organizing them, and she used some of the money from the fund that had been established for her to build an addition to the farmhouse. The second floor of this wing was made into a library, which would become the nation’s first presidential library. –p. 255
1 p. 128
2 p. 136-137
3 p. 186
4 p. 253