Summary: James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back.
But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what happened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in turmoil. The unhinged assassin’s half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. As his condition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet.
Meticulously researched, epic in scope, and pulsating with an intimate human focus and high-velocity narrative drive, The Destiny of the Republic will stand alongside The Devil in the White City and The Professor and the Madman as a classic of narrative history.
My Review: Wow. Wow! To start, you know what? The GOP has nothing to worry about. Millard has painted such a complete picture of Garfield’s political career, and as a political geek, it was fascinating. I must admit, Garfield was always a footnote in my mind. I vaguely recalled that he was assassinated, but I don’t remember much more of his time in office. Again, it was truly a fascinating time in history. Nominated to the presidency against his wishes, he won by a landslide and incurred the wrath of one of the most powerful men in Washington, oddly, one of his own party. Potential cabinet members were kidnapped and threatened in order to stack the cabinet against the favor of the President. There were rumors (wholly unfounded) linking the Vice President and his cronies to the assassination, and bone-chilling descriptions from the assassin himself, who truly believed that by assassinating the president, he was assuring himself a spot in the new President’s cabinet. Yes, the man was cracked.
Millard makes the chilling case that it was the ineptitude of his physicians (the “chief” of these was actually self-appointed and refused to leave the case) that ultimately caused the death of the President, months after the initial attack. Were the events to have unfolded merely ten years in the future, he would have probably been back at work in a matter of weeks. It was truly astounding to read of Alexander Graham Bell’s involvement in the attempts to save the President’s life, how the events of the World’s Fair a few years prior could have altered history, had American doctors embraced these assumingly-theoretical “germs” that Dr. Joseph Lister kept going on about, and how misled the medical community was at the time.
My Rating: Easily four stars.
Sum it Up: A fascinating analysis of the assassination of President James A. Garfield.
For the Sensitive Reader: There is quite a fair amount of medical discussion, and some pretty graphic descriptions of the sepsis that ravaged the President’s body.