Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
By Candice Millard
Hardcover. 339 pages.
September 20, 2011. Doubleday.

James Abram Garfield was President of the United States for 199 days, and 79 of those days were spent fighting for his life after he was shot by delusional office-seeker Charles Guiteau at Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station on July 2, 1881. Because of his brief Presidency, his seemingly meteoric rise to the White House, the fact that he was only 49 years old when he died, and his unfortunate inclusion in the era of largely forgettable Presidents between Lincoln and FDR, we tend to overlook Garfield’s importance and his fascinating life.

In Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (2011, Doubleday) — the new book by Candice Millard, the New York Times Bestselling Author of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005) — we learn more about Garfield’s improbable ascension from desperate, Lincolnesque poverty to a life as one of the more remarkable intellectuals of his period and a politician who was propelled into the Presidency by his popularity rather than his ambition.

Destiny of the Republic weaves together several captivating storylines which feature a variety of complex characters. The book begins with the 1880 Republican National Convention which Civil War veteran and Ohio Congressman James Garfield emerged from as the surprise GOP nominee for the Presidency. Involved in the machinations of the convention are leaders and bosses from both sides of the Republican Party — Garfield’s Half-Breeds and the Stalwarts, led by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling and represented by Garfield’s Vice Presidential running mate, Conkling’s protege, Chester Arthur.

As Garfield wins the Presidency in November 1880, we’re introduced to Charles Guiteau, a wanderer and lost soul who is intelligent, but clearly insane. Guiteau can’t decide what to do with his life, but as the 1880 campaign rages on, Guiteau believes that a rambling speech that he gave in vague support of Garfield contributes to Garfield’s victory and should be rewarded with a diplomatic appointment overseas.

After Garfield is inaugurated in March 1881, he finds himself beleaguered — as all of his predecessors have been — by office-seekers who feel that their service to Garfield or the Republican Party is deserving of an appointment under the spoils system which the American government has been built on since political parties were first formed in the United States. Charles Guiteau is one of those office-seekers who pesters President Garfield, Garfield’s private secretary, and Secretary of State James G. Blaine. Guiteau isn’t the President’s only worry. As Garfield leans towards reforming the spoils system and appointing people to government position based on merit and experience, he is met with protest by powerful opponents such as Senator Conkling and his own Vice President, Chester Arthur.

Candice Millard does her best to take us into the diseased mind of Charles Guiteau as he is frustrated by being turned down for the diplomatic posts that he genuinely feels he deserved. Through Guiteau’s own words and testimony from those who knew him, Millard clearly illustrates in Destiny of the Republic how truly delusional Guiteau was. After being turned down once again with a blunt dismissal by Secretary of State Blaine, Guiteau realizes that a diplomatic post isn’t in his future, but feels that God has called on him to remove Garfield from the Presidency and put Arthur in his place.

It was July 2, 1881 when Guiteau shot President Garfield twice as Garfield walked with Secretary of State Blaine through the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington. One bullet grazed Garfield’s arm, and the other miraculously missed all of his vital organs and lodged near his pancreas. Guiteau was immediately arrested, but felt that he had merely done God’s work and that Chester Arthur — who would succeed Garfield if the President died — would appreciate what he had done and free him.

James Garfield wasn’t dead, though. Although he was seriously wounded, Garfield was a relatively young man, very healthy, and physically robust. At just 49 years old, the President was about 6’1” and weighed a solid, muscular 210 lbs. The wounds that he received were far less serious than the gunshot wounds that former President Theodore Roosevelt (1912) and President Ronald Reagan (1981) would later survive.

It’s been widely-known — pretty much since Garfield’s autopsy — that James Garfield wasn’t killed by the gunshot wounds he received, but by blood poisoning that resulted from infections introduced by the unsterilized instruments and fingers that Garfield’s doctors probed the President with. What Candice Millard does in Destiny of the Republic is meticulously detail the mistakes and miscalculations made by Garfield’s doctors and describe the agonizing, often disgusting results.

As President Garfield tries to recover, Millard helps us follow Guiteau’s experiences in prison as he slowly realized that he wouldn’t be received as the hero he expected to be welcomed as. We also see the transformation of Chester Arthur from a puppet of Roscoe Conkling’s political machine to a man genuinely devastated about Garfield’s shooting and worried about potentially becoming President. We also follow the somewhat tyrannical bedside manner of Garfield’s lead doctor, D. Willard Bliss, whose decisions may have prevented the President’s recovery. Millard also examines the work of famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who races to perfect a machine that can help locate the bullet inside of Garfield before the President’s time runs out. In the process, Bell faces his own tragedy, Guiteau faces trial, Arthur finds a helpful friend, and the First Lady Lucretia Rudolph Garfield attempts to be strong for her husband.

What really stood out in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, however, is James Abram Garfield. Now, I have read quite a bit about the 20th President and his times, but I guess I wasn’t examining him closely enough — or, perhaps, I wasn’t given a good enough insight until Candice Millard added some illumination. I’ve always been impressed by Garfield’s intelligence, his rise from abject poverty, his service in the Civil War, and his remarkably long (for a man who died before the age of 50) and eventful Congressional career. I’ve also been aware of Garfield’s progressive beliefs — his loud voice in support of civil rights, his early adherence to the abolition of slavery, and his courageous stand for equality.

Unfortunately, I think I’ve tended to overlook Garfield’s Presidency because it was so brief. I guess I simply thought that Garfield’s Administration basically ended on the day he was shot, without thinking about what he went through as he fought for his life. The portrait that Millard paints in Destiny of the Republic is that of almost a saintly figure. A brave man who suffered through torturous pain and illness without complaining, without treating the people around him badly, without showing so much as a hint of the anguish that he was obviously enduring. Garfield lingered on for 79 days in the summer months of humid, malarial Washington, D.C. His body, as Millard writes in Destiny of the Republic was “literally rotting”. Infection introduced by his stubborn, misguided doctors had whitened his dark hair, removed the color from his face, and left him emaciated after his weight dropped from 210 lbs. to 130 lbs. in a matter of weeks. Yet, Garfield continued to fight and never had anything but a smile for the doctors who were doing him so much harm (and eventually killed him).

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (2011, Doubleday) is a riveting story that made me look at a historical figure that I thought I knew pretty well in a completely different way. When people ask me if, as a Presidential Historian, there is any specific era of Presidents that I find boring, I’ve often replied “The Gilded Age Presidents” or the Presidents between Lincoln and FDR (with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt). I can’t say that anymore. This made me reconsider James Garfield as more than just a brief footnote due to his unfortunate assassination. There’s much more to Garfield than his assassination, and there is much more to the assassination than the two shots fired by Guiteau in a Washington railroad station.

In River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, Candice Millard took us along with Theodore Roosevelt as he faced death and barely escaped it on an expedition to Brazil. In Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Millard takes us along with James Garfield as he meets death and, in the process, inspires his nation and transforms his successor, Chester Arthur, into a President that Garfield would have been proud of. I can’t recommend Destiny of the Republic enough. It’s available now, so go get it.