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Review of "Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard; Doubleday
On July 2, 1881 -- exactly 131 years ago today -- James Garfield was shot by a deranged man. A nineteenth century gunshot wound was torture enough, but brace yourself: Garfield struggled a grueling eleven weeks with a bullet buried deep behind his pancreas before passing away. His killer, Charles Guiteau, was shoved into a cell where he convinced himself he'd be absolved. In his mind, he committed a necessary act of American patriotism; God granted him the power to do what others couldn't. To a lucid public, however, it was cold murder. When news of Garfield's death swept the country, Americans were thirsty for Guiteau's blood. As the events unfolded, they took on mythical proportions: Garfield's bedridden resilience was Herculean. Guiteau's delusions were otherworldly. The public's outrage was moblike.
It's surprising to consider that the story of this presidential assassination, with all its darkness and dementia, was underplayed in American history until the publication of historian Candice Millard's brilliant "Destiny of the Republic" last fall. After all, Garfield was an extraordinary president, destined to be one of our best before his sudden departure. A quiet man uninterested in attention, Garfield never even wished to be a part of the presidential race. But upon giving a rousing endorsement for John Sherman, those in attendance at the 1880 Republican National Convention were so moved they added Garfield's name to the already overpopulated ballot. He wound up winning his party's nomination, followed by the nation's Presidency. "There is a tone of sadness running through this triumph," he wrote after the announcement, "which I can hardly explain."
Such humility immediately draws you to Garfield's side as you wind through Millard's colorful tale. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that a man eager to be president must be one of two things: egomaniacal or crazy. Therefore the reluctance with which Garfield wore his crown is ultimately a testament to his unique qualifications. With what little time he had, he made haste to change society for the better. He took to purging corruption in government, abolishing the spoils system, and appointing a handful of African Americans (Frederick Douglass included) to federal positions. He had a marvelous blueprint for America's future, which once again raises the question: how was all this largely forgotten?
Perhaps one of the culprits behind our collective amnesia is the educational system and its emphasis upon the broader strokes of War and Industrialization as the topics that sell in history classrooms. Since Garfield's assassination followed shortly after the Civil War, an event that almost swallows American history whole, his era is often categorized as "postbellum reconstruction," forever eclipsed by its own fresh past. Candice Millard dispels that blanket definition with a quick dusting of the historical record. She wields "Destiny" like a lantern, casting light on the hidden cracks of America's past, coaxing the shadows of science and history out of their corners to flicker once again. The insanity, the murder, the stakes: it's all been ripe for a modern retelling, and with the wave of her pen Millard summons the era bounding before our eyes.
Her premise is simple: Garfield died an untimely death. We know who shot him and why, and Garfield's injuries would be deemed little more than a flesh wound by modern medical practitioners. The question becomes: What other factors contributed to the second shortest presidency in American history? For one thing, Garfield was a vulnerable target. Secondly, he was treated by doctors resistant to the most basic antiseptic precautions.