Thursday, January 26, 2012

Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard tells the story of the assassination of President James Garfield by a deranged man.  This is a smart, highly readable and tightly focused work of history.  I knew nothing about James Garfield or his assassination.  Millard does a terrific job of shedding light on what happened.

James Garfield was a compromise candidate for the presidency in the election of 1880.  He did not want the job and only emerged as the candidate when the front-runners were deadlocked.  He grew up basically fatherless and dirt poor.  He learned Latin, mathematics and literature.  When he was in Congress, he developed an original proof to the Pythagorean theorem.  Garfield was truly a self-made man.

In the 1880s, there was no concept of security for the president.  Office seekers regularly stopped into the White House to meet with the president (can you imagine that nowadays?).  A deranged man, who believed that he helped put Garfield into office and then needed to eliminate him to save the Republic, shot him in Union Station.  Medical practitioners at the time had not yet accepted Lister's thesis that a lack of sterile procedures caused more deaths than the wounds themselves.  Doctors battled with each other for control over Garfield's care.  The doctors who actually took care of Garfield probed the wound with their unsterilized fingers, infecting the wound and causing the wound to become deadly.  Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the phone, struggled to invent a life saving device to find the bullet and assist the President and find a way to get through to the controlling doctors.

Millard narrates the story beautifully and brings the vivacious personalities to life: Garfield's tenacity and strength, Bell's persistence and drive, the doctors' self-serving need to control Garfield's care and the assassin's psychosis.  The book's focus is not on politics or the shooting itself.  It is about what happened after the President was shot and how the doctors and Bell struggled and battled to save the President.  The book reads like a novel and brings to life a somewhat forgotten president.

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