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

Destiny of the Republic

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

Author:  Candice Millard 

Released:  2011

Destiny of the Republic is a fascinating book about the assassination of James Garfield. In addition to the assassination, it gives biographical information about James Garfield, as well as Charles Guiteau the man who killed him. Other historical figures get drawn into the intrigue, including future president Chester A. Arthur and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. As a biography on any of the figures it’s certainly short on details, but as an overview of the event and the principal people involved this is a good book to learn a lot in a little bit of time. Since I read this as part of my series of biographies on every president, here’s how Garfield grades out in my presidential scoring system:

Born into – Garfield was born into poverty in Ohio, with his dad dead by the time James was two. James was the youngest of four kids, and after the death of his father his oldest brother (11 years old at the time) and his mother farmed and sold some of their 100 acres to survive. Famously, James didn’t own his first pair of shoes until he was four years old. Early on, his mom donated some of their remaining land to build a school house so James could get educated. He was the focus of his mother’s, brother’s and two sister’s efforts to have one educated person in the family. 5 out of 5.

Pre-President – Garfield took advantage of his educational opportunities. He had to work through prepatory school as a janitor to pay for tuition. He was so successful as a student that by his second year he taught 8 classes. James was a professor of math, literature and ancient languages. Early on he was also an abolitionist, hiding a runaway slave as a young man and giving him some of his limited funds to assist with his survival.

Garfield worked as a canal driver on the Erie Canal (which his father helped dig) until he nearly drowned. After this incident he gave up on his lifelong dream of working on the ocean to focus on what he excelled in, his continued education. Garfield went to Williams College for two years, graduating with honors, then returned to his same Prep School to serve as President at age 26.  Garfield was asked to take the place of a recently deceased Ohio State senator in an 1859 election and won handily.

When the Civil War began, Garfield became a Lieutenant Colonel due to being very education and the lack of military officers in the North (Ohio). His major involvement was the Battle of Middle Creek; there he led troops that fought a larger number of confederate soldiers with superior artillery by dividing his army into three groups and attacking from multiple sides. The effect worked but at high cost, and afterward he was promoted to Brigadier General. Afterward he was elected to Congress, all this despite not running a campaign or putting in any effort of his own. Garfield Stayed in the military until Lincoln asked him to begin serving in Congress. While there he supported black suffrage and had a record of speaking more than any other man in Congress.

While in Congress, Garfield became a lawyer and argued his first case before the Supreme Court, defending men who stole weapons and freed rebel prisoners during the Civil War. Garfield won.  He was elected to the Senate in 1879, again not running a large campaign (the total campaign cost was $150). All together he spent 18 years in congress. I came away with the general impression of James Garfield as a man who loved to talk, who was also very forgiving, not one to hold grudges in the political arena. 4 out of 5.

Presidential career – Garfield being elected president came as a surprise to everyone, including himself. He went to the Republican convention, supporting Sherman from his own state as the candidate. Another front runner for the Republican nomination at the time was Ulysses S. Grant.  Garfield never volunteered himself as a candidate, however once other individuals started supporting him it snowballed until even Sherman indicated it was best for the party. His record as a military man and consistent Republican from an important state made him an easy choice for the Republicans.

At his inauguration, Garfield stated he wanted to elevate blacks to full citizenship status and fight the spoils system of patronage in the government. Like many other presidents of his era, Garfield also set up visiting hours for a few hours a day twice a week when civilians could come speak to him directly. The major issues of his presidency were his wife’s illness (more on that below) and the conflict with Roscoe Conkling. Roscoe was one of the premier powerful guys in politics of the time, having more money and patronage positions in New York than anybody else. Roscoe tried to control who Garfield could get for his cabinet and also Garfield’s attempts at Civil Service reform.  Eventually Roscoe was convinced to resign in what he believed to be a power play that would rally others around him. Roscoe was wrong, and ended up losing his bid for reelection and was pretty much out of politics afterward. Garfield was shot just a few months into taking office, and died a few months after that, never getting to follow through on any of his goals. 2 out of 5.

Vice President – Garfield was saddled with Chester A. Arthur, who was one of Roscoe Conkling’s men and was loyal to Conling and not Garfield. Arthur was even involved in helping intimidate some of Garfield’s picks for cabinet out of accepting their positions in a power play by Conkling. His involvement while serving as Vice President mainly involved hiding from the press, and getting emotional to the point of tears when it came to the possibility of having to step up and serve as president. There was also some interesting details about Arthur finding strength in letters he received from a random lady who felt the need to send him motivational words in the mail.  Although he did eventually show a bit of backbone when it came to Conkling and accomplish more as president than Garfield had an opportunity to, none of that showed in his time as Vice President. 1 out of 5.

First Lady – Lucretia was an interesting lady. Apparently Garfield fell instantly in love with her, but later on had trouble committing to her because she was so unresponsive in her demeanor. Not until she let him read her diary did he even know she also liked him. After they were married, the marriage felt more like duty than romance to the point that Garfield even had an affair and confessed it to Lucretia. Afterward she still stood by him and apparently their marriage thrived from that point forward.

The couple’s first child Eliza died at 3 as did their youngest child Ned from whooping cough. When Garfield took office, his wife, five surviving kids, and his mother Eliza moved to White House with him. Millard indicated Garfield’s mother was the first mother of a president to live at White House.   Shortly after taking office, Lucretia got seriously ill. Garfield was very worried, to the point that when he was shot twice his first concern was how Lucretia (who by that point was recovering) would be able to process the information. 2.5 out of 5.

Post-Presidency – No comment. 1 out of 5.

Book itself – As mentioned before, Millard spent as much time talking about Charles Guiteau and Alexander Graham Bell as she did James Garfield. Certainly the most interesting facet of the book was the Guiteau information as a mentally deranged man stalked his target. Guiteau believed he was entitled to a post like Ambassador to Austria or something equally prestigious despite having no qualifications, friends in high placed or money to his name. Eventually he decided that assassinating Garfield would solve all his problems and he would depend on Chester A. Arthur and the stalwart side of the Republican party to clear him of all wrongdoing. He was wrong, and was hanged a year later.

Alexander Graham Bell’s story felt overly developed by contrast, as Bell tried to develop a device to find where the bullet was lodged in Hayes. He was successful in inventing the device, but Dr. Bliss (the doctor in charge of overseeing the president’s recovery) only allowed him to examine the part of the body he wrongly believed the bullet was located. Dr. Bliss (and the other doctors all involved) did Garfield no favors by continually probing his body with his fingers and unsterilized instruments into his bullet wounds. When Garfield died it was due to the infection that had ravaged his body, not the two original bullet wounds. 4 out of 5.


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