Saturday, November 12, 2011

Excellent Reads: Candice Millard's "Destiny Of The Republic"

I'm an enthusiast for any kind of information pertaining to the U.S. Presidents. I've been this way since I was seven and was introduced through a poster on my refrigerator and a scrapbook of their information. I know as much information as I can about the presidents and if I become stumped with a piece of presidential information once, chances are I will never be stumped again.

A category that is major when it comes to presidential information is about those who were assassinated and ultimately died while in office. When you come to look at it, there were more presidents that had assassination attempted on them, assassination attempts that left them wounded, and assassinations that ultimately assassinated the president. Those under the latter category included Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. The Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations are by far discussed more than any of the assassinations. Both of them were more famous as being presidents and both were pretty much done after they were shot. Lincoln died the day after he was shot and Kennedy was dead within forty minutes. McKinley survived eight days, and could have possibly survived if the lighting in his surgery room was better. However, Candice Millard, who wrote The River Of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt, decided to explore the much overlooked death of Garfield. Unlike many of the other assassinated presidents, Garfield could have very well survived if circumstances were better and even so, survived two months after being shot. Destiny Of The Republic: A Tale Of Madness, Medicine, And The Murder Of A President, shows that our 20th President Of The United States as being more than just the man who was assassinated soon after assuming office, but a man on a mission to carry out civil service and promote fairness within the government.

James Garfield was born into a poor family and was the last president to be born in a log cabin. His father was dead by the time he was two and he grew up with his mother and siblings. Millard provides just enough information about how he grew up and ultimately went to college to become a professor. Garfield began serving in government, but was soon serving for the Union army during the Civil War. After the war, he joined Congress. To this day, Garfield is the only President to hold the position of Representative while being elected to office. In 1880, civil service reform was the key issue. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President, was considered a Half-Breed who supported civil service reform, which meant electing people to positions based on merit. He fought against Roscoe Conkling, and the Stalwarts, who supported Ulysses S. Grant and his spoils system, which elected people on personal ties. Hayes, who wasn't thrilled about being president in the first place, had a term plagued by Conkling and his havoc.

At this point, the Republican party was split into the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds. The Democrats were simply the people who dodged being a part of the Civil War by escaping to Canada. There wouldn't be another Democratic president winning the election until 1884 anyway, when Grover Cleveland won. As for the Republican Convention in Chicago during the 1880 election, mean such as Grant, James G. Blaine, and Treasury Secretary John Sherman were possible nominees for the presidency. Garfield had no intentions of running nor any intentions of being nominated. He was just going to give a speech for Sherman. However, support for him began to rise and rise high enough so that Garfield was the Republican nominee. Much to his dismay, he would go on to win the election and assume the office of President Of The United States.

Throughout the book, Charles Guiteau, who was eventually the assassin, was followed. He was an insane man who supported the Stalwart message and felt that God was sending him on a mission to spread the word of such an idea. When constantly barging in to the White House didn't work, then he felt God was sending him a message to assassinate the president. Guiteau was rightfully portrayed as being insane and just a man who was one card short of a full deck and should belong out of the public eye and in the asylum. We learn a good amount about his back story and how he came up.

On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot twice at a train station by Guiteau. One of the bullets went into his back and lodged itself deep in. However, he was far from being a dead man walking. He had a chance of living if the medical team handled the situation properly. Unfortunately, they did not. Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, who led the procedure, engaged in some negative practices. They did not have clean hands or tools, which very often led to procedures that ultimately failed. Doctors stuck their hands that were not sanitized into Garfield's wound and only stuck to one side when operating. Even Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, tried to detect the bullet with an invention of his. Garfield would live two months before succumbing to practices gone wrong.

Destiny Of The Republic gives you just the information that you need and does it incredibly well. Reading this book, you not only begin to learn more about Garfield's assassination, but you also begin to learn about Garfield himself. You kind of learn about who Garfield was as a person and how he would likely want to be remembered as oppose to being "The President Who Got Shot A Few Months Into His Term." Garfield was outgoing, loved his family, treated those he was talking to as it they were great friends of his, and an avid croquet player. Speaking of his family, the relationship between he and his wife, Lucretia, was discussed to a tee. Unlike him, she was extremely quiet and reserved. The two of them did not have much of a chemistry when they first met. Garfield at one point went with another woman, but realized that she was the woman for him. She forgave him, as long as he wouldn't have any more affairs. He also was a compassionate father who enjoyed time with his children. If it were up to him, he would be spending time with them while working as a Representative in Mentor, Ohio.

It is very shocking to think that while Garfield's assassin engaged in such a wrong deed, the doctors may have been the ones that ultimately caused his death. Given that had Garfield (or any president in exactly the same position) been shot in the same exact way, they would be out of the hospital quickly. Joseph Lister began performing sanitized surgeries in Britain, but they continued to be ignored for butcher-esque practices. These thoughts can really get you to think and think hard.

Millard also does a fine job on explaining the personalities of the many figures. Whether it be Guiteau and his insanity, Conkling and his self-indulgence and ignorance, Bliss and his narrow-mindedness, Chester Arthur and his inexperience (and how he suddenly changes his stance, signing the Pendleton Acts to bring forth civil reform), Lucretia Garfield and her reserved personality, or Garfield and his jolly, outgoing, and optimistic disposition. The story sticks to telling you what exactly happened while being an animated lesson at the same time. You didn't question whether something was real or not, but at the same time, it wasn't like it was monotone or textbook-like.

Definitely check this out. It will be a history lesson and a fine read all put into one.

An interesting fact about Garfield that I don't remember reading in this book was that he was our first left-handed president. At the same time, he had the talent to write in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other.

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