Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard
James A. Garfield, twentieth president of the United States, was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. On July 2 of that same year, while preparing to board a train in Washington DC, he was shot twice by a man who had been stalking him for weeks. That man, Charles J. Guiteau, suffered from paranoid delusions and other symptoms of severe mental illness. He had no difficulty positioning himself directly behind the president so as to carry out his plan.
Those are the bare facts. But there is more to this story – much more….
Candice Millard has given us a riveting narrative of post Civil War America. But what I am most grateful to her for is the depiction of Garfield himself. Here was a man who wanted only to be able to farm his acreage in his beloved native Ohio, and to dwell there in pleasant amity with his wife Lucretia and their five children. Instead, his fellow Republicans, recognizing his sterling qualities, drafted him into politics, ultimately nominating him to run for president. It was not what he wanted:
‘This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day.’
Nevertheless he was called upon to serve, and he did. His reward was to be shot by maniac and to endure two month of excruciating pain and misery before finally succumbing to septicemia and a host of other ailments brought on by the shooting and subsequent ill-advised medical treatments. The date of his death was September 19, 1881. He had been in office a little more than six months.
This is a rich feast of a book. I want to write more about it in a later post. Just now, though, I want to sing the praises of Destiny of the Republic, and to recommend it as warmly as I possibly can. There were times when this was not an easy book to read. The story of Garfield’s ordeal at the hands of the medical men – Dr. D. Willard Bliss in particular, whose arrogance was largely responsible for his prolonged agony, was appalling. In an interview with Diane Rehm, Candice Millard says she had difficulty writing about his suffering because she had come to care so much about him. I had difficulty reading those passages for the same reason.
Garfield was a thoroughly admirable human being, a devoted family man, a dedicated public servant, a man of deep learning and deeper compassion.
Modest to a fault, James Garfield would have shunned the comparison, but when I finished this book, what came to my mind were the words spoken about Brutus by Marc Antony at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man!
I’ve been talking about this book compulsively for weeks, to anyone who would listen. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have looked at me with bemused expressions, as if to say, You’re reading a book about James A. Garfield? Why, pray tell? I do hope I’ve answered that question.