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A book that needed to be written about a little known President

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard

Destiny of the Republic-Candice Millard, author; Paul Michael, narrator

Millard has written a book that desperately needed to be written about a President whose brief time in office is not well known, a President who only served the United States in that capacity for less than a year, but whose impact was greater than I had realized.

As the author told his story, she included so many interesting and pertinent facts about the time in which he lived, that it made the book that much more enlightening. She made Garfield come to life by humanizing him. She painted him as a wonderful family man who was devoted to his children and to his wife, above all. She portrayed him as a brave fighter who stoically suffered with his mortal injury, rarely complaining and always remaining optimistic in the face of his pain. He was soft spoken and well educated. He was a gentleman who might have accomplished much more with his life had he had the opportunity.

James Garfield never campaigned to be President, but was truly chosen spontaneously by the deadlocked convention, quite unexpectedly, as he himself waited to nominate General John Sherman for the position.. He faced many of the same political obstacles that our current President Trump faces with opposition forces in his own party thwarting many of his efforts. At the time of his Presidency, there was little thought given to his personal security, although it was only a dozen years since President Lincoln had been assassinated. No one believed there would be any reason for his life to be endangered. 

Garfield lived during a time of great and new inventions. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and telegraph and was working on an induction balance machine that could locate a bullet that was lodged in a shooting victim’s body. He wanted, desperately to locate the one that was somewhere within President Garfield’s own body. Joseph Lister made inroads into wound treatment by introducing the concept of antisepsis, although he faced tremendous opposition, as well, with many doctors disregarding his discovery. This same time period also spawned a maniac named Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau was unsuccessful in all of his attempts at legitimate work. He was more of a con man than an honest man and cheated many people out of their money, borrowing and not repaying his debts, leaving restaurant and hotel bills unpaid, believing he deserved what he took from them as a man of G-d. He believed in himself, unlike so many others who recognized his behavior as seeming insane.

Guiteau had delusions of grandeur and truly believed that one day he would make his mark on the world.  He often went to the White House and petitioned Garfield’s administration for a position, but he was never granted one, having been recognized as a bit peculiar. He became more unhinged, and he conceived of the idea that G-d wanted him to murder the President in order to pave the way for the opposition to take power. He was sure the world would recognize this act as heroic and would reward him with a government position for performing such a service. He set about making plans to murder the President. His plan was simple and cold-blooded, but when he finally committed the act of shooting Garfield, he was not as calm and collected about it as he had been leading up to the event. He ran, but was caught. He loved his notoriety, though, and thought surely he would be pardoned when Vice President Chester Arthur took over. He really believed that he would be beloved by all.

As it turned out, the wounds to Garfield were not in and of themselves life-threatening, but instead it was the infection that did him in, and that infection was caused by doctors who disregarded the need for a germ free environment for the wound. So, although there were methods of treatment that might have saved his life, few doctors, foremost among them was Dr. Bliss, believed in unseen germs. They did not recognize that germs were the reason for the injury’s grave infections and the inability to heal.  My favorite quote in the book is “ignorance is Bliss”, for indeed, ignorance coupled with arrogance were perfect descriptions of the man who was probably most responsible for the brief time of Garfield’s life!