2015: 4. Destiny of the Republic

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

"Crossing the Long Island Sound in dense fog just before midnight on the night of June 11, 1880, the passengers and crew of the steamship Stonington found themselves wrapped in impenetrable blackness."

This was a total "recent non-fiction" pick up off a table at Barnes and Noble that paid off immensely - so thank the lord that book stores still exist, or I'd never have ever found this book, and I LOVED it.  To be fair, once I saw the cover, I knew it was squarely in my wheelhouse - madness (check), medicine (mostly check) and the murder of the president (100 checks!!).  But, to have it turn out to be well-written, and to teach me whole bunch of new things, and introduce me to my new dead president boyfriend, James A. Garfield, is amazing.

So, let's talk Garfield.  This book is about the Garfield assassination, and prior to the book, my knowledge of Garfield was limited to the Guiteau song from Assassins (to be fair, I know all the words).  And maybe a little bit from Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, but all I really remembered was that Garfield was 1) shot in a train station and 2) lingered on forever, because the real damage was done not by the bullet, but by 19th century medicine.  All that is true, and discussed in the book - particularly the latter point, which will make you fall on your knees and thank the good lord you had the sense to be born in this century.  The part where the doctors are openly dismissive of Lister and his antibacterial campaign? Yuck, and thank the lord for penicillin.  But what I didn't know before I read this was that Garfield? Was sort of awesome.

Let's see - born in total poverty, basically in a log cabin.  Worked his way through school until he went from impoverished janitor to president of his junior college - and then president of Williams College.  Fought in the Civil War with distinction - was a General.  Then served in the House and the Senate.  Only became President because, after a convention with like a million ballots and huge divisions in the Republican Party, he was the only guy they could agree on - because his speech was so awesome.  Once President, fought a faction of his own party - the issue? He was against patronage, they were for it (that's basically what got him killed - Charles Guiteau was a madman who had convinced himself he was doing it on behalf of the Stalwarts - i.e. the patronage people).  You know how when you talk about historic figures you need to be all, well they were totally racist, but that was just the time period? Not with Garfield! He believed that blacks should be treated the same as white people! He loved his wife! He loved his kids! He was a scholar! He was a dreamboat!  

And he died in total agony over a period of months thanks to a lunatic and shitty medicine.  And we all forgot about him - except to make cat and lasagna jokes.  There isn't even a plaque where he died (though there is a statute near the Capitol).  Which is because (and this is inside baseball D.C. stuff), but he was shot at a train station that used to be basically on the middle of the mall (did not know that!), and it was torn down once Union Station was built. And now the spot is in in the middle of the National Gallery somewhere, and they didn't think it was appropriate to mark it in the art museum.  Poor Garfield.

Anyway, the book was great and (as you know if you follow me on Facebook) made me into a Garfield fan.  My only quibble is that there is a whole subsection on Alexander Graham Bell, who tried to make a machine to find the bullet in Garfield's body, and didn't succeed, which seemed a little extraneous - like the author was afraid that Garfield and Guiteau wouldn't be enough for us, so she threw in another famous American.  But despite that, this is a great read - a perfect little popular history book.

And OH! I totally forgot the part about how Chester A Arthur is so moved by the assassination he goes from a flunky to the champion of civil service reform.  Gosh, this book is great.

Categories:  The United States President Project

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017