A shot fired by a deranged assassin in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., train station in the summer of 1881 would eventually lead to the death of the United States’ 20th president, James A. Garfield.
While Garfield survived for more than two months after the shooting, he later succumbed to massive infection introduced by aggressive and highly unsterile attempts to locate the bullet by the very doctors charged with saving his life. In fact, gunman Charles Guiteau argued, unsuccessfully, that it was Garfield’s doctors who should be charged with murder and not he.
In “Destiny of the Republic,” author Candice Millard interweaves the story of a little-known president with that of his delusional assassin to paint a clear picture of an America fractured by civil war and weakened by political corruption in the form of a spoils system run amok.
She also offers a fascinating look at medical practice in a day before germ theory was widely accepted as fact and at the archaic — and by today’s standards very frightening — treatments endured by a man who managed to rise above his pain to inspire a nation.
Born into extreme poverty and raised by a single mother, Garfield overcame his circumstances through hard work and a commitment to education. A college president by the age of 26, he served as a major general in the Civil War and was elected to Congress in 1862 — a seat he held for 18 years. At the 1880 Republican Convention, he became the unexpected “dark horse” candidate after 35 failed attempts to nominate a candidate from among the leading contestants.
Although he was shot just four months into his term, Garfield is remembered for tackling the rampant corruption that awarded coveted federal posts to friends and supporters of powerful politicians such as Sen. Roscoe Conkling, leader of the Stalwart Republicans.
Millard’s book details not only the politics of this often-overlooked president, but also offers insights into his contributions as a great scholar and a true humanitarian.