Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President
Today for the first time ever on PML we are having a guest post (hold the applause). Here now is the debut from my partner in blogging, Pheebs. Although this is the first time, hopefully it won’t be the last.
I recently was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a radio news broadcast interviewing author Candice Millard. She was speaking about her new book entitled, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. (Hereafter referred to as DOR for my sanity.) My curiosity got the better of me and I added this read to my Christmas wish list — and I have to say it was one of the best presents I received this year. In DOR is a seamlessly woven tale of three men – an assassin, a president, and an inventor – whose paths cross just long enough to change the course of US history.
Even most history buffs can’t really tell you much about the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield. He is often lumped together with his “Gilded Age” contemporaries — the “forgettable” presidents. Most ordinary Americans (myself previously included) might have an image of him sipping brandy out of a golden goblet with bff’s Johnny Rockefeller and JJ Astor. However, I learned from DOR that the exact opposite is true. The last US President to be born in a legit log cabin, Garfield came from abject poverty and a single mother household. His mom was a pretty wise lady and beyond the completely admirable feat of hacking it alone in that log cabin, she instilled Garfield with a love of learning. An overzealous reader and all around nerd (he knew Virgil’s Aeneid by heart…oh yeah, in English AND LATIN) Garfield put his way through school by working as the institution’s janitor. From the very start of her book Millard paints Garfield as a guy to respect — a humble book lover who works his way up from that janitor to the university’s president. I was amazed by the man’s versatility as well. Garfield not only pursued a career in academics, but dabbled in law, was nominated to congress, fought as a general on the side of the Union in the Civil War (he was adamantly anti-slavery) and even spent some time working on the Erie and Ohio canal. Talk about a résumé. It’s clear that Millard admires the heck out of the guy, and one of the best things about the book is that it’s incredibly difficult not to join her as a Garfield groupie.
Yet the thing that Millard makes quite clear is that Garfield was never particularly ambitious for the limelight and certainly never cutthroat. One of Millard’s most triumphant moments is her description of how the guy (somewhat comically) accidentally became nominated as a United States president. I read this book at quite a timely moment, feeling a powerful sense of déjà vu as Millard paints the crazy riot that was the 1880 Republican National Convention. Millard reminds readers that merely 15 years had passed since the end of the Civil War and even Lincoln’s grand old party had powerful factions. (think Tea Partiers VS Mitt Romney Repubs….. but more so) Garfield’s appearance was meant to be simply a small part of the circus, as he was scheduled to introduce candidate John Sherman to the raucous and sharply divided mob that gathered in Chicago. What Sherman didn’t count on was how eloquent Garfield really was. So the man stands up to introduce Sherman, and his speech is so good that the crowd starts screaming “we want Garfield!” Garfield, shocked and horrified by this turn of events is left wondering how exactly he ends up getting nominated (and subsequently elected) to the highest office in the land. What Millard makes clear in her re-telling, is that Garfield never intended or even wanted to be President. I found this one of the best things about Garfield. In contrast to a modern political atmosphere where ambition and a killer ego is needed for a presidential run, Garfield simply seemed to see it as his duty to serve the people who were so inspired by him.
Millard is able take this piece from a traditional biography to the three-dimensional tale of the two other men who drastically effect Garfield’s story. While getting to know the lovable nerd Garfield, Millard simultaneously introduces audiences to his sinister counter part, Charles Guiteau. Unlike Garfield, Guiteau was a man with delusions of grandeur and dreams of fame. Guiteau had one pesky problem — he wasn’t really good at anything. He tried law, theology, and for a short time even lived on a highly sexualized, early free-love commune (that’s right folks, this book has murder, intrigue, and even some Jerry Springer moments.) Setting his sights on getting a government job in the age of patronage, Guiteau stakes out Garfield’s offices. As a young professional in the DC metro area who knows how frustrating it is to apply for a government job (or 194, for that matter) you almost feel sorry for Guiteau. What’s striking though, is the sense of disillusionment that plagues this man until Guiteau decides that God wants him to kill the mild-mannered Garfield by lodging a bullet in his back. Millard also introduces Alexander Graham Bell, whose story intersects seamlessly with the drama that unfolds as Garfield languishes from this bullet wound. What makes this story so incredible is that this famed inventor of the telephone actually thought he could save the President’s life — with his newest nifty invention, an early metal detector. And try he did.
I’m convinced that what makes this book a success is Millard’s skillful execution. As a former editor for the National Geographic Magazine with a Master’s degree in Literature, Millard is not a historian by trade. However, she steps into the role beautifully, as her footnotes are filled with primary source documents (newspaper articles, diaries, court decisions, etc.) Beyond her ability to weave a biographical narrative is her knack for writing a history book that definitely appeals to non-history buffs. Her tale is historically accurate and painfully researched, yet reads like an adventure novel. That’s an extremely hard thing to accomplish in the world of historical literature, especially in an age where history texts are either too detail heavy for “history people” or are dumbed down to the point of glaring inaccuracy and/or bias. Millard also has an eye for a good story. I was amazed that even though I have a history degree, I never knew this tale. Millard noted in her interview on NPR that she was intending to write a science book about Alexander Graham Bell when she discovered that he attempted to save President Garfield’s life. I most definitely felt that I discovered this story along with Millard, but also that I wanted to learn even more about the people she referenced. Case in point: Chester Arthur, Garfield’s VP and one of those “forgotten” Gilded presidents. While I loved Millard’s exploration of Garfield, Guiteau, and Bell, hands down the best character arc goes to Arthur (ed. note: Arthur also makes an appearance in my Presidential nicknames post). We see as he transforms right along with a still divided nation, which comes together to hope fervently for Garfield’s recovery. I was seriously impressed by how his ideologies and loyalties change as he remembers Garfield with many decisions in his presidency. (Plus the man definitely dominates the best beard category of the Gilded Age.)
Sadly, Millard has only written one other book. It’s called River of Doubt and is about Teddy Roosevelt’s adventures in the Amazon rainforest. I am anxiously awaiting its arrival via mail (hurry up USPS!) and am hoping it can measure up to DOR. A hard task, considering the poignant manner in which Millard introduces us to Garfield. Her piece is part adventure novel, part murder mystery, and part biography. But what struck me is the tragedy that is at the heart of all of it. A reluctant leader, Garfield was assassinated only 4 months into his term. I was left wondering if Garfield would have been a good president, given the chance. In the speech which made him president Garfield spoke:
“I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into the spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured.”
Maybe Garfield wouldn’t have been as animated or loud as the room he spoke to, but maybe he would have been exactly what this wounded nation needed. Maybe he would have brought gentle calm to the tempest. Or maybe he would have chosen a quiet chair and Virgil over a chaotic nation. Whatever he chose to be, something tells me he would have been anything but forgettable.