Nate: The book we’re talking about today is “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard, which discusses the life, presidency, and assassination of James Garfield. Now, you might be thinking, who is James Garfield?
Dave: And that was largely how we felt going into the book.
Nate: Precisely. I knew some basic facts about Garfield, such as he was the 20th president, he was from Ohio, he was a Civil War general, and he was assassinated. But other than that, I didn’t know a whole lot, and this is coming from someone who loves and studies history. What I found out was that he had the potential to be an outstanding president if he had lived, which is contrary to what you usually think when it comes to presidents in the late 19th century. So that was very interesting to me.
Dave: He was just such a nice guy – even as his doctors were killing him he was telling them thank you, and how much he appreciated their care. And in many ways he was the quintessential American myth of a President. He was born in a log cabin, was self educated, made his way through college, became president of that college, became a general in the Civil War, made his way into politics, and was thought of highly enough to be nominated for President. And most of his rise had to do with the fact that he was just an all around good and decent man. Probably one of the more decent human beings we’ve ever had as a President. And that was in the middle of a whole lot of corruption.
Nate: Yeah, this was in the middle of one of the most corrupt times, politically, in the history of our country. But up until his death, Garfield had stood up to those forces. And I’m led to believe he would have maintained that stance if he had lived.
Dave: He was also a friend of the south, which was contrary to the way most Republicans of the day operated. There was a definite trust there, which makes you wonder if things might have progressed differently in terms of the ongoing effects of Reconstruction and racial division. How much would the south have listened to him and tried to work with him?
Nate: It’s an interesting question, and one we’ll never know because unfortunately he only held office for a few months. And most of that time he was lying in bed, sick and dying from a gunshot wound. Or I guess it would be more accurate to say from his doctors’ care.
Dave: Which is the other piece that makes this book so interesting. All of this was going on at the same time as some fairly big scientific advancements. There’s the side story of Alexander Graham Bell and how he tries to help save Garfield by trying to find a way to detect where the bullet was in his body. But some of the biggest changes were occurring in the field of medicine, which is where science collided with the President’s struggle for life. The saddest part of the story is that the gunshot wound Garfield received from his would-be assassin is not what actually killed him. It was all the meddling with and probing of his wound by scores of doctors who did not believe in using sterilized instruments that led to his death. Infection is what killed him, not a bullet.
Nate: It was so interesting in the book when Millard said that if Garfield had just been some drunk in a bar who got into a fight and had been shot in the same spot, he would have probably been taken to a hospital where nothing drastic would have been done, the bullet would have stayed where it was, and the wound would have eventually healed. It was wedged in a part of his body where there was a large amount of muscle and fat, and could really do no harm to him.
Dave: But unfortunately, because Garfield was the President, he had about twenty doctors hovering over him from the moment he was shot, trying their best to figure out where the bullet was, and how to get it out. And the doctor who was in charge of his care, Dr. Bliss, whose first name was actually Doctor oddly enough, certainly led the way when it came to wound tampering. He even went so far as to stick his fingers and hand into Garfield’s bullet wound. All of this probing and tampering caused a massive infection, which is eventually what killed him.
Nate: And what’s really sad is that the understanding of bacteria and sterilized instruments did exist. But unfortunately American doctors didn’t adhere to this practice yet. So if he had been shot 10-20 years later he probably would have lived.
Dave: And then there’s the story of Charles Guiteau, the man who shot Garfield.
Nate: Guiteau was something else. He definitely belonged in an institution for the insane. His family even tried to get him committed several times, but to no avail. His path is followed leading up to the assassination, and you learn just how “out there” he really was.
Dave: He was at the White House virtually every day wanting to talk to Garfield because he was certain he was going to appoint him as the Ambassador to France. In fact, he was there so much that the staff and members of Garfield’s cabinet knew who he was. In the end, when he had been rejected by the administration, Guiteau felt he had been chosen by God to kill Garfield and that the nation would praise his name when he did. Even when he was in jail, he was convinced that General Sherman was going to come and free him. It was really a sad and pitiful story about a guy who had no idea how to function in society.
Nate: And how about Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. You find out that he was in the direct vicinity of three Presidential assassination – his father, Garfield, and also William McKinley two decades later.
Dave: And he was also in the crowd of dignitaries when there was an assassination attempt on Teddy Roosevelt.
Nate: So I guess the lesson to be learned from that was to not have Robert Todd Lincoln anywhere near you if you were the President.
Dave: Who do you think would enjoy this book?
Nate: This is an interesting question, because initially I didn’t want to read it. When I first saw it, it didn’t really pique my interest because I honestly had no desire to read what I thought was more or less a biography of Garfield, who I couldn’t have cared less about.
Dave: Yes, as we said before, James Garfield isn’t exactly a household name.
Nate: Right. But after several people I knew read it, and told me how good it was, I decided it might be worth picking up. And I’m certainly glad I did. And I will say that some of the people I know who read it and thoroughly enjoyed it are not people who read a lot of historical non-fiction.
Dave: There are a couple of elements to the book – there is the biographical part, where you learn about Garfield, Guiteau, and even Alexander Graham Bell, but there’s also the scientific element to it where you learn about the medicine and science of the day. And I don’t know how anyone could not be drawn into the story of James Garfield. He’s portrayed as a truly amazing person, and I think most anyone would like him as they go through the book, as well as his wife, Lucretia who was also an amazing woman. And in addition to all of that, it’s also well written by Candice Millard, who used to write for the Kansas City Star, and who also wrote another great book, “The River of Doubt”.
Nate: So I guess what we’re saying is, don’t be scared away by the fact that it’s historical non-fiction, or by the fact that it’s about someone you might not know a lot about.
Dave: Exactly. If you just take the time to pick it up, I think you’ll find yourself enjoying it, and you’ll really get to know, and like, James Garfield.