After reading “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard, I think I want a refund on my history classes. There is so much more to learn about James Garfield, our 20th president, than I would ever have guessed.
He was one of our assassinated presidents, shot by a madman, and then killed by the doctors. No, doctor. One doctor in particular –whose story should be taught to medical students –was the culprit. Dr. Bliss came in and imperiously made himself the head honcho in Garfield’s care. But I digress.
James Garfield was probably the only person in history who attended a national political convention who DIDN’T want to be president. He was tapped to give a nominating speech for another man, likely because he was such a good speaker. After giving his speech, the delegates at the convention decided to nominate Garfield. They’d had over a hundred votes, with no clear direction, but the only man they could all agree on was Garfield.
The future president started life in Ohio; his father died when he was only two years old. His mother was clearly a resourceful person; she kept the family together and insisted that her children become educated, because that was the only way out of poverty. When other families would have parcelled out the children to other families or put them to work, she made sure they went to school. Garfield’s siblings went on to other great things, too.
Garfield, a college president at age 26 and Civil War hero, would have been a good president. He might have pushed for earlier desegregation, more educational opportunities for children, and a better system of welfare. It’s tragic that he didn’t have that opportunity. Author Candice Millard gives us a well-researched and well-written story of this man. And she gives us an equally balanced account of Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau.
Guiteau was mentally ill. He’d survived a steamboat accident and was convinced that he’d been chosen by God to perform some big service to mankind. Unfortunately, he decided that his service would be to take out Garfield, so that Chester Arthur could become president. Arthur was favored by some in the party because they thought he was easily manipulated. Even then, power could corrupt. But no one thought that Garfield’s life was in danger.
Garfield was so beloved by the people that it took over 100 interviews with potential jurors to find a group of 12 who said they could give a fair and balanced judgment. Guiteau’s own brother-in-law, who was not a criminal lawyer, had to defend him, and the Guiteau humiliated him in open court. Guiteau got one thing right, however. He shot the president, but the doctors killed him.
Imagine it: Garfield was shot at the railroad station. They laid him down on a horsehair mattress right there on the floor of the depot, and the doctors came and probed the wound with their bare hands, looking for the lead ball. No rubber gloves, no sterilized instruments, no thought for germs. Because at that time, Joseph Lister was still considered radical for his ideas on antiseptic surgery. It didn’t matter that European doctors were embracing his theories and saving patients.
Alexander Graham Bell also tried to come to Garfield’s rescue. He had made a huge success of his telephone, and was working on the next big thing. When he heard that the doctors couldn’t find the lead ball inside Garfield, he invented the first metal detector. The only problem was that Dr. Bliss wouldn’t allow Bell to scan Garfield’s entire body. Bliss was convinced that the ball went one way, when it had actually gone the other. Bell’s metal detector could have led them in the right direction.
But then again, if Bell had actually found the lead ball, Bliss would have wanted to operate and Garfield would have likely died in the process from infection. There were other attempts to save Garfield’s life, and even knowing that he died, I hoped that someone would have put Bliss in his place. Garfield’s wife, Lucretia, had her own doctor come — her doctor was a woman, which was equally rare. But Bliss kept everyone out, thinking he was doing the president a big favor, when he would have liked the company and could have used a second opinion.
One would think that after this assassination, security for the president would have been a big priority. Nope, not until after McKinley’s assassination does the Secret Service take on the task. Their original mission was to find counterfeiters.
The one great thing that did come out of Garfield’s death was that Chester Arthur took over and found the backbone to complete some of Garfield’s wishes. Arthur didn’t cave in to the corrupt political bosses and led the country in the best way he could. Medicine kept improving, but some doctors still think they’re gods. Some things never change.