Saturday, January 14, 2012

Destiny of the Republic

One of the better books of 2011 is Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic. It is the story of James Garfield's unlikely rise to the Presidency of the United States, the political factions of the 1880s, a short yet meaningful presidential tenure, a traumatic assassination ordeal, a crazed assassin, backwoods medicine and modern medicine.

James A. Garfield -- a poor Ohioan, raised by a widowed mother who through her prayers and his ability to recognize providence, was able to become a leader, educator, scholar and state politician. He help raise seven children (five survived to adulthood) who all went on to lead productive lives and heritages of their own. Garfield never sought the Presidency but achieve it he did. After taking the office oath in March 1881, he spent the first couple of months with a deathly ill spouse (Lucretia). In July, he was shot. He suffered at the hands of incompetent doctors for nearly 10 weeks before dying. His presidency stood for anti-corruption/anti-spoils that dominated American politics. He also was able to help bring about a national healing; sixteen years after the Civil War, America became less North Vs. South, and more "we."

Charles Guiteau -- a mentally deranged man who lead an interesting life of his own, in a convoluted way, felt it was God's will that he kill Garfield in favor of the Stalwart-style of politics he seemed to prefer. He felt by killing Garfield, fellow Stalwart Chet Arthur would give him a place in his new administration. Though well read, he was a vagrant. He was hung a year after he shot Garfield, after a failed insanity defense.

Roscoe Conkling - he is arguably the definition of corrupt American politics. Though a Senator (NY), he was the man "behind the scenes," but wanted everyone to know how important he was. He was the leader, along with Ulysses Grant, of the Republican Stalwart faction. He liked the spoil system of politics. Few have had a higher regard for themselves than Conkling. Interesting, his man, Chester Arthur, was placed as the VP to be Conkling's puppet. After Garfield's death, Arthur did not fulfill this expected role.

Willard Bliss - the medical doctor that appointed himself President Garfield's doctor following the shooting. His meddling and old school ways of medicine was what killed Garfield. It is likely that if left alone, Garfield would have recovered. (Thousands of soldiers had survived shoots with the bullets still inside.) He did not believe in the septic school of medicine as pioneered by Joseph Lister and his proponents. Garfield's autopsy and post-analysis clearly place a great deal of blame on Bliss. Interesting, this was Guiteau's main defense -- he had merely shot him, it was Bliss' medling with unclean hands and tools that killed him.

Alexander Graham Bell - One of the challenges the medical people were hung-up on was trying to find and remove the bullet in Garfield. Bell we dedicated, oh he was dedicated, at building something that would identify the bullet so surgery would be more precise. He invented the metal detector, a device he called the induction balance. He tried it on Garfield but due to the mind-set of Bliss, he would only allow him to search the area Bliss thought the bullet was lodged. It turned out the bullet was on the left side, not the right side that was the focus of so many probes.

Great characters. New insights and information that few are aware of. This is a great book. Tough to put down. Like all good history, the lessons of the past have direct applications to today's problems. Thanks for the research and good writing Candice Millard.

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