Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review: DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC by Candice Millard (Doubleday, 2011)

Following up on THE PRESIDENT IS A SICK MAN and THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN, we plunge back into the 19th century for another little-told tale of what used to be called the "Chief Magistracy." This one covers arguably the most pointless Presidential assassination in history, Charles Guiteau's 1881 shooting of James Garfield just a few months into the latter's term in office. The standard historical outlay for this affair concerns the unique fact that Garfield lingered on for several months after the shooting before finally succumbing. But, as Millard makes clear in her absorbing book, Garfield's death was anything but inevitable -- and the country may have lost a potentially outstanding President as a result.

With the exception of several digressions into the career and life of Alexander Graham Bell, who used a mechanism called an "induction balance" to try to locate the bullet that had lodged behind Garfield's pancreas, Millard gives us a straightforward narrative. The Garfield she describes was a self-made man who rose from grinding poverty through education and hard work, a classic American tale. But there also seemed to be a touch of genius about the man; what other prominent American politician can claim an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, for example? A Civil War general and a strong advocate of equal rights for freed slaves, the well-liked Garfield might have made a more effective fight against the late-19th-century "Jim Crow" clampdown in the South had he been permitted to live out his three-score-and-ten. Unfortunately, no sooner had Garfield braved the demands of waves of office seekers (this was still the era of the spoils system) and batted down some strong-arm tactics by a would-be power behind the throne -- Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, the patron of Garfield's Vice President, Chester Arthur -- than Guiteau's bullet cut him down.

Garfield's major wound was not actually life-threatening -- and the sad fact is, as Millard relates in sometimes sickening detail, that his doctors were more the cause of his demise than the bullet itself. The American medical establishment of the day scorned the theory of "antiseptic surgery" practiced and promoted by Britain's Dr. Joseph Lister, relying instead on such "heroic" measures as sticking unsterilized fingers and other objects into the wound. Even had Bell succeeded in locating the bullet, Garfield would still probably have died of septic poisoning. The stubborn unwillingness of American doctors to adopt Lister's theories seems rather strange to me; after all, aren't we the "innovator nation"? (Lister himself, in a fruitless attempt to convert skeptics during a lecture at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, pointed out that America had given the medical world anesthesia.) The problem seems to have been the overwhelming importance of seniority (and, hence, a certain hideboundedness) in the medical pecking order at the time. The incompetence of senior medical officers was a problem during the early days of the Civil War, giving rise to the creation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, but evidently the problem also extended into the civilian sphere.

Guiteau gets plenty of attention here as well. He appears to have been the ultimate example of "the lights being on but nobody being home" -- a seemingly rational individual who was nonetheless the prisoner of all sorts of delusions, the most infamous of which was that he had helped Garfield win the Presidency and therefore "deserved" a government sinecure. Sadly, "watch lists" were not a common security practice in 1881 -- nor, in fact, was any sort of formal protection for the President, since John Wilkes Booth's killing of Abraham Lincoln was thought to have been a one-shot (no pun intended) affair stemming from the Civil War atmosphere -- and Guiteau was given the opening he needed to gain infamy. Guiteau's execution is a matter of some controversy due to his apparent insanity (the "insanity plea" was new at the time, but it did exist); my own opinion is that anyone who skipped out of paying hotel, boarding house, and restaurant bills as often as Guiteau did must have had some rudimentary notion of the difference between right and wrong. He just chose not to act on the impulse.

A quick and enjoyable read -- apart from the frequent incidents involving oozing pus, that is -- DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC is another excellent example of a recent book shedding new light on an obscure but significant incident in American history.

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