Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic was published over a year ago and has moved off of the bestseller charts but it's easy to see why demand for this book (and author Candice Millard's previous The River of Doubt) has continued to simmer. It is a wonderful history book that combines politics and medicine to tell the story of a man whom history remembers simply as a six-month president whose life was stolen by a lunatic.

The personal history of James Garfield is in itself enough to fill up a fascinating book. Born in poverty, he was raised by a single mother when his father died while trying to save the family farm. He returned home after working as a canal driver to a family that had scraped up enough money for him to enter college. In college he worked in exchange for tuition, eventually working his way up to become a professor. He then became a lawyer, led an infantry in the Civil War, and was finally elected as a U.S. Congressman. He was truly a self-made man.

Garfield was also a freethinker. He was progressive on the issue of slavery and had been known to have aided escaped slaves. Following an eloquent nomination speech for another candidate at the Republican Convention, Garfield was nominated to the Republican ticket as a compromise presidential candidate. It was a nomination which he had never sought for a position that he did not desire.

Unfortunately Charles Guiteau, a delusional preacher and lawyer, stole Garfield's life away by shooting him at a train station (presidents did not have security at the time - people assumed that since politicians could be thrown out of office there was no reason for an assassin to target them, with Lincoln's assassination viewed more as a war crime than a political act). The book then moves to the fascinating story of how Garfield's doctors "treated" him, which caused more harm than the actual bullet. It is speculated that had he received his wound on the battlefield and had been left alone, he would have lived. Unfortunately, due to unsanitary conditions, lack of x-ray and just plain poor knowledge and bad decision-making, the doctors left Garfield's body riddled with infection. After suffering for over two months he finally died.

Another thread running through the story is Alexander Graham Bell's invention of a medal detector that would detect exactly where in the body the bullet lay. Bell's story is slightly obtrusive in the book but it is interesting on its own.

Destiny of the Republic is filled with so much colorful history and fascinating asides that it's hard to believe that anyone would be able to put the book down and feel that it was not everything that a popular history book should be. The book has heroes, villains, geniuses and cads, and is strongly recommended for those of you wanting to learn about a part of history that you never knew you were interested in.

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