Doubleday—a division of Random House, Inc., New York—of New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, and Auckland releases a biography entitled Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard in 2011. It tells of the assassination attempt on President James A. Garfield by the self-righteous Charles Julius Guiteau, the botched medical care by Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (this is not a typo), and the obsessive determination of Alexander Graham Bell to invent a mechanism to detect the location of the lodged bullet in President Garfield’s body. Millard meticulously reconstructs the events from diverse primary sources; includes a bibliography, an index, acknowledgments, illustration credits, and notes; but does not cumber the reader with distracting footnote numbers within the body of the text.
I vaguely remember from AP American History that President Garfield was a dark horse candidate and that he was shot in a train station. What is surprising is how little I suspected about the drama behind the historical facts. Millard goes behind the newspaper articles and diary entries to show what happened at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago. President Garfield does not seek the presidency like other candidates. He even tries to halt efforts to vote him as the Republican candidate, but the convention votes him in anyway. The way he deals with this sudden popularity certainly categorizes his placement into the presidency as a calling and not as an ambition to power. My opinion of him grows more impressed as Millard describes his strong, jocular, dedicated, grateful, and courageous attitude or personality. The best characteristic that I believe sets him apart is this statement: “‘Of course I deprecate war,’ he wrote, ‘but if it is brought to my door the bringer will find me at home’” (84).
The people of the United States seem to like him too. From immigrants to pioneers and from freed blacks to Southern whites, they stand behind President Garfield, especially during the days he is bedridden after the assassination attempt. (This may explain why a county in Utah is named after him.) “Since he had taken office,” Millard states, “settlers, living on land they had cleared themselves and which, every day, they fought to defend, had felt secure in one thing at least, that they would not be forgotten in their nation’s capital” (182). I am sure the Mormon pioneers revered President Garfield enough to name a county after him in his honor.
President Garfield becomes such a likable fellow that the reader feels the heavy weight of tragedy once Guiteau shoots him in the back. Anyone with a good heart would fume at Guiteau depravity and immorality. But this sentiment gets overshadowed by the archaic, almost barbarous, medical practices by the doctors who tried to save President Garfield’s life. Something that I have not learned from AP American History is that President Garfield dies of blood poisoning, not from the bullet that is lodged behind his pancreas. Several doctors and Dr. Bliss constantly probe the bullet wound with unsterilized instruments and unsanitary fingers. A contemporary reader cannot but squirm in horror at the thought that “Although Bliss closely tracked the spikes in the president’s temperature, the chills, restlessness, vomiting, pounding heart, and profuse sweating, he either did not know, or refused to acknowledge, that they were symptoms of severe septicemia” (215). Such treatment would be branded as extreme medical malpractice today if not outright, negligent homicide.
Even with such maddening passages as President Garfield’s medical treatment, there are times of genuine human compassion and tenderness. Before President Garfield passes away, he requests to be transported to a town on the New Jersey coast to see the ocean. Railroad tracks are laid down specifically to bring President Garfield to his intended beach cottage. “Before the train could reach its final destination, however, it stopped short. The cottage sat at the top of a hill, and the engine was not strong enough to breach it. No sooner had the problem become apparent than, out of the crowd of people who had waited all day in the tremendous heat for Garfield’s arrival, two hundred men ran forward to help” (226). The men pushed the cars of the train up the hill to the cottage. This humble and charitable act of selflessness should not be forgotten.
Questions come to mind about the possibility of President Garfield’s survival and Guiteau’s mistrial in today’s world. Had President Garfield survived, Guiteau would have been charged with attempted murder instead of the assassination of a president. Had President Garfield received the archaic medical treatment today and died, Guiteau would have had a strong defense that the doctors killed President Garfield, not he. With the help of expert witnesses, he could have received an acquittal. He may also have had a better chance from a mistrial, because the voir dire of the jurors resulted in a biased jury (see page 238). For better or for worse, Guiteau gets convicted and is hanged, not by a twenty-first century court, but by a nineteenth century one.
Millard does an excellent job weaving the historical facts into a thrilling and educational story. Her narrative is able to stir my emotions at the right times and in the right way. I recommend this book to anyone, child and adult alike. Parents that want to shield children with weak constitutions from certain influences should know that there are descriptions of medical gore in this book. Other than that, the reading should be a profitable one. I would especially like to see an adaptation of this book projected onto the silver screen, if the opportunity comes up.