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Monday, January 23, 2012

"Destiny of the Republic"

I really enjoyed this book by Candice Millard.  I actually listened to the audio book (the reader, Paul Michael, was excellent).  It felt a bit padded - Garfield doesn't get shot until past the halfway point, and I got a bit impatient with what felt like excessive detail - for example, tons of details about Garfield's election (during a long convention which began with Grant considered a shoe-in) and the assassin, Guiteau's daily activities (tons of details about the places he lived and things he did up to the time he got fixated on Garfield).  And the detail on events prior to the shooting belied the grandiose title.  But these are relatively minor quibbles. Despite the somewhat labored presentation, it's a fascinating and rather sad story.  Here are some of the things that I've learned:

Just 16 years after Lincoln was shot IN A PUBLIC PLACE, Garfield was shot IN A PUBLIC PLACE, but it wasn't until McKinley was shot IN A PUBLIC PLACE, just 20 years after Garfield, that the Secret Service, previously tasked with pursuing counterfeiters, were put in charge of presidential security. (Seems like the U.S. was pretty slow on the uptake with this issue!)

Garfield spent 80 days (virtually all of them miserable, most of them agonizing; he lost 1/3 of his body weight, over 75 pounds), dying of sepsis (the gunshot was not fatal), despite widespread adoption of Lister's germ theory in Europe, and, even more tragically, 20 years later, McKinley also died of sepsis (his gunshot was also not fatal), though much more quickly (in just 8 days). So medical care did not improve significantly in an entire generation, even though Lister's theory was been much more widely accepted in America by then. 

Two important inventions resulted from his ordeal - an early version of a sonogram machine (feverishly invented by Alexander Graham Bell in an attempt to save the president), and the indoor air conditioner (to battle a brutal D.C. summer).

There was no provision in the Constitution to deal with a president's incapacitation.  Despite the long period of Garfield's incapacity, there was nothing done at that time to deal with the issue.  In 1919, 38 years later, Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in office and spent several days in a coma.  The issue of presidential incapacitation was not dealt with at that time either.  It wasn't until 1967 that the 26th amendment to the Constitution was drafted to provide official procedures.

And maybe my favorite - Garfield spent the time leading up to the election at his farm in Ohio because at that time, it was considered unseemly for the candidate to actively campaign!

Though from humble origins, Garfield was smart and educated, and seemed a genuinely decent man.  He did not have a burning ambition to be president, which may be the best qualification for the job.  If he had not died, he probably would have been an excellent, and maybe even important, president, during a fractious and difficult period in our history.

Sadly, the tragedy of his death probably brought the nation together after the civil war in a way that few other events could have done.  So if there's a silver lining, it's surely that.

Chester Arthur, the vice president, was a political choice, from the "stalwart" wing of the Republicans, and considered a puppet of an ambitious lifelong political figure, Roscoe Conkling (some even suspected that Arthur and Conkling were behind the assassination). But he was so affected by Garfield's death that he rejected further influence by Conkling, and vigorously pursued reform of the patronage system by establishing the civil service, as Garfield no doubt would have done. His dramatic transformation was captured in this famous quote by a journalist of the time: "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe."

Other interesting factoids:

Garfield's was the first presidential library, established by his widow, Lucretia, in their family home in Mentor, Ohio.

The case had a profound impact on the insanity defense, which was being widely used at that time. Guiteau probably was insane - he had been erratic for years and he'd been committed more than once.  His behavior throughout his trial was utterly bizarre - among many other things, he insisted on representing himself (he was trained as a lawyer), he frequently called random spectators as witnesses, he regularly insulted and cursed the judge and jury, and his final statement was in the form of an epic poem.  Obviously, the public had no tolerance for the plea in this case. Guiteau has the dubious distinction of living longer than any of the 4 American presidential assassins - 9 months.

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I found this story so involving that I immediately started to read another book from the period, Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising, about John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, but I couldn't get into it.  I'm still convinced that I'll enjoy historical non-fiction more than I originally thought, but maybe spaced out, with other books in between.



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