Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Destiny of the Republic

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

James A. Garfield is the type of US President known only to people who want to win Trivial Pursuit. But Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic makes a very good case for why the man and his times are not something we should ignore so easily.

As good as many US presidents have been, the era around the Civil War – with one standout exception – produced a lot of dullards and duffers as presidents. Either too willing to indulge the slave holders in the South, or too captured by the corruptions of the North, the second half of the 19th century is a somewhat sorry period in US governance.

While an assassins bullet denied Garfield the time to make a mark on history (he served just 4 months in health, and lived only 3 more as an invalid), he had all the qualities to launch an industry of biographers. Born in deep poverty in rural America, he ran a school, worked on the canal boats, fought in the Civil War, served in the House of Representatives for nine terms, and won the Presidency without actually seeking to be the candidate or campaigning.

As Millard engagingly describes, Garfield attended the 1880 Republican Party Convention as a nominating speaker for John Sherman. When 36 successive ballots couldn’t decide between Sherman, Grant or Blaine, delegates swung behind the man who delivered the best speech of the convention, James A. Garfield. James was somewhat shocked by this turn of events and promptly returned to his native Ohio. He spent the next few months speaking occasionally to visiting groups from his front porch, and otherwise minding the farm. Surprisingly, at least to modern audiences, he won.

Most tantalisingly, Garfield seemed well ahead of his time on race relations. Millard’s book is not a careful academic study, so take these comments with caution, but Garfield seems to have fundamentally recognised (where many would not) that the freedom of African Americans required direct action to improve their social and economic status, not simply the removal of their chains.

The colour and enjoyment of this book is therefore twofold. The first, is the tantalising ‘what if’ of had Garfield lived. The second, is the story of the doctors who ensured he did not.

Much of Destiny of the Republic is concerned with the medical practices of the time, and the botched, backward and bewildering medical practices which were administered to the dying President. Thanks to heavy professional discipline, new ideas from Europe about bacteria and the need for sterilization were rejected out of hand. Instead, these doctors —with the best of intentions — often saw their hands as perfectly suitable instruments to try and feel around inside the President’s wound searching for the bullet fragments.

With a nobleness of character that seems out of this world, Garfield seemingly accepted without complaint the myriad of tests, treatments and ignobility’s of medicines sorry record at the time. Millard’s damning conclusion is that had Garfield received no medical help, he would almost surely have survived. Many Civil War veterans of the era walked around with bullet fragments inside them, and the nature and location of Garfield’s wound was such that a full recovery was very possible. His cause of death instead was infection and disease, introduced by the doctors who were sent to save him.

This is a gripping story, and Millard’s prose flows beautifully, effortlessly carrying you through a rather depressing era. Garfield’s assassin, Charles J. Guiteau is a strange figure, sane and yet clearly out of his mind. A loner and loser who expected to be given the Ambassadorship to Franc. When refused, he decided to help the party by ‘removing’ the President. Another fascinating cameo of the story is Alexander Graham Bell, who set to work designing a metal detector to find the bullet. Bell’s machine worked, but the lead doctor was so convinced he knew where the bullet must lie he refused to allow Bell to search beyond a limited area.

Along with the insights into a forgotten President, the real lesson of this book is a reminder of just how far medicine has progressed. True, it has not always been in neat linear steps. Yet the difference between the conditions of a President in that era, and a pauper in our own are staggering. There are only a few places on earth in the early 21st century which don’t enjoy a standard of medical care far above that consumed by the wealthiest of the late 19th century. That is too easily forgotten, yet truly remarkable.

Destiny of the Republic is extremely easy to read, and yet its simplicity belies a powerful message. A forgotten leader of noble character. A chance at progress denied by random violence. And the steady, sustained march forward of science and medicine. There’s nothing trivial in such knowledge.