June 2018 Book Club
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
The shocking shooting and the painful, lingering death of the 20th president.
“Killed by a disappointed office seeker.” Thus most history texts backhand the self-made James Garfield (1831–1881), notwithstanding his distinguished career as a college professor, lawyer, Civil War general, exceptional orator, congressman and all too briefly president. Millard follows up her impressive debut (The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, 2005) by colorfully unpacking this summary dismissal, demonstrating the power of expert storytelling to wonderfully animate even the simplest facts. As she builds to the president’s fatal encounter with his assassin, she details the intra-party struggle among Republicans that led to Garfield’s surprise 1880 nomination. The Stalwarts, worshippers of Grant, defenders of the notorious spoils system, battled the Half-Breeds, reformers who took direction from Senators John Sherman and James G. Blaine. The scheming, delusional Charles J. Guiteau, failed author, lawyer and evangelist, listened to no one, except perhaps the voices in his head assuring him he was an important political player, instrumental in Garfield’s election and deserving of the consulship to Paris. After repeated rebuffs, he determined that only “removing the president” would allow a grateful Vice President Chester A. Arthur to reward him. During the nearly three excruciating months Garfield lay dying, Alexander Graham Bell desperately scrambled to perfect his induction balance (a metal detector) in time to locate the lead bullet lodged in the stricken president’s back. Meanwhile, Garfield’s medical team persistently failed to observe British surgeon Joseph Lister’s methods of antisepsis—the American medical establishment rejected the idea of invisible germs as ridiculous—a neglect that almost surely killed the president. Moving set pieces—the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exhibition which Garfield attended and where both Lister and Bell presented, the deadlocked Republican Convention, the steamship explosion that almost killed Guiteau, the White House death watch—and sharply etched sketches of Blaine, the overwhelmed Arthur and larger portraits of the truly impressive Garfield and the thoroughly insane Guiteau make for compulsive reading.