James Garfield is an American president most don’t know more about than that he fell victim to an assassin. That’s a shame, because unlike so many of our presidents, whose lives stand up poorly to scrutiny, Garfield was a truly admirable man. If you read Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, you’re guaranteed to finish with a much better knowledge of a great American and the times in which he lived.
The book begins at the Republican convention of 1880, and reading about it will make readers understand how completely the political process has changed. Garfield is there to give the nominating speech for his fellow Ohio Senator John Sherman, the major competitor to the machine-backed Ulysses Grant. His speech is so good, that when the convention is deadlocked between the other two candidates, the little known Garfield sneaks onto a few ballots as a compromise choice. With each ballot, his support grows, until despite Garfield’s stunned objection, he finds himself the Republican nominee for President. Back then it was considered distasteful to stump for oneself much, so Garfield returned to his Ohio farm for the duration of the election, where he indulged his love of books, learning, farming, and family while others campaigned on his behalf.
Soon Garfield was President, but not without enemies. The powerful Roscoe Conkling, whose candidate Grant had been beaten by Garfield wanted someone his political machine could control. He even managed to get his stooge, Chester Arthur, a man with no real qualifications, on the ballot as Garfield’s VP. More dangerous to Garfield was the deranged Charles Guiteau, a failed commune dweller, lawyer, street preacher and writer, who was convinced that his support of Garfield during the election entitled him to an important appointment. When that wasn’t forthcoming, Guiteau started hearing voices that told him to shoot Garfield, and even imagined that he would be made a hero after he did it.
The book isn’t just about Garfield. It’s just as much about the medical practices of the time, and the lack of support for antiseptic techniques that killed Garfield more slowly and surely than Guiteau’s bullet. It’s about Alexander Graham Bell and his feverish attempt to create an invention that would locate the bullet in Garfield’s body exactly. It’s about the now hard-to-fathom practices that allowed a US President to travel without accompaniment or much attention in public. The pages are full of fascinating minor characters and detail that brings this little known period of history to vivid life.
Pair this with Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, another look at the unknown details of presidential assassination or Millard’s other great work of popular history, River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.
Check the WRL catalog for Destiny of the Republic