Sunday, January 08, 2012

Destiny of the Republic - book

It is not often you pick up a book and almost immediately realize you are in for a genuine treat. I was given this book for Christmas and it turned out to be such a book. As it is a book about President James Garfield, someone I knew next to nothing about, and as it was also a book about older presidential politics, a subject that has never been of much interest to me, I was initially skeptical. The subtitle did, however, titillate my interest: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. The minute I started reading it I knew I was hooked and did not want to put it down.

President Garfield it turns out was a truly unusual man, born into genuine poverty he managed, through janitorial work and carpentry to acquire an education. He worked for a time on a canal boat, tried his hand at preaching for a short time, was a teacher for a while, eventually became a lawyer, served eight terms in the House of Representatives, was a successful General during the Civil War, was elected to the Senate, but almost immediately, through no effort on his own part, received the nomination for President, won the election, served for only a few short months before being assassinated by an insane office seeker who was hung even though known to be insane.

Garfield was a large, jovial, cheerful man who enjoyed people and was dedicated to his country. He was also a skilled orator. Although in office as President for a mere 200 days he managed civil rights and Post Office reforms and began to change the spoils system that up until then appointed relatives, friends, and supporters that were not usually well qualified. He believed that incompetents should be removed from their positions, I guess a somewhat novel idea at the time that met with some resistance. He had been opposed to slavery and, serving during the immediate post civil-war period, was a champion of civil rights and insisted that Blacks be treated with civility and respect. He appointed a number of Blacks to high positions in government. He was also opposed to greenbacks and thought we should have a bimetal based economy.

On July 2, 1881 President Garfield was shot in a train station as he was on his way home to visit his wife and children. Although badly wounded he clung to life for some 80 days before he finally died. It is this period of time that is perhaps of the most interest in this meticulously researched book. At that time the President had no bodyguards of any kind and traveled in the same manner as everyone else. This made him easy prey for Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged individual who thought he would become a hero by assassinating the President. Guiteau had for years believed he should have a high office in government, even the Presidency, and had become well known by hanging out around the White House and demanding an appointment. Guiteau had borrowed $15 to buy a .44 caliber revolver and, as he had never before owned or even fired a gun, practiced with it before shooting the President. Guiteau was immediately captured and placed in jail. There were calls for a lynching, on at least two occasions he was shot at, and troops had to be called out to protect him. Soon after Garfield’s death he was given a jury trial, pleaded insanity, and even though everyone knew he was insane, he was found guilty and hanged.

The medical attention he was given is largely the focus of Millard’s book. The President did not have a doctor, nor had any provision ever been made for something of this nature. Although Joseph Lister had discovered and was promoting antisepsis (preventing infection by destroying germs) there was much resistance to this on the part of the medical profession that did not at the time necessarily believe there even were germs and rather arrogantly (as was their professional wont) believed their traditional practices were perfectly sufficient. Thus as Garfield lay on the dirty floor of the train depot, and more than one doctor looked at him, following their usual procedure one or more of them stuck their finger in the gunshot wound, and later used probes to poke around in the wound to find the bullet. The wounded man was carried out on a dirty mattress and taken to the White House that was itself little more than a rotting structure at that time. One doctor appointed himself to be in full charge of caring for the President and did, apparently, gave him what was considered the best treatment he could while relegating other doctors to positions of relative insignificance. It looked for a time that Garfield would survive, and although he was in acute pain most of the time, he apparently remained cheerful until the end. The doctor poked an probed but could not locate the bullet which he believed was lodged in the President’s right side. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor, worked feverishly day and night to produce a metal detector that might help. On the first try Bell made a mistake in hooking up his new invention, he then perfected it so that he knew it would work, but on his second try the doctor insisted he look for the bullet only on the President’s right side where he was convinced it would be found. Bell never had another chance as the President died before he had another opportunity. The invention was a success and was used for years in such cases.

The autopsy confirmed that in fact the bullet was lodged on the left side. By that time it didn’t matter as infection had spread throughout the President’s body and ultimately took his life. Unhappily, it was his medical attention that killed him, rather than the gunshot wounds. Some doctors pointed out that had he received no medical attention at all he might well have recovered (there were hundreds if not thousands of civil war veterans walking around with bullets lodged in their bodies). Had the doctors not arrogantly rejected Lister’s discovery the President would also have lived.

This book is what is now described as narrative non-fiction, a genre that has actually been around for quite a while but only fairly recently named. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which he described as a non-fiction novel, is perhaps the best example of this type of writing. Basically it is telling a true story but in a more literary form than, say, newspaper reportage. Destiny of the Republic is what I would regard as one of the finest examples of this genre I can imagine. I highly recommend it.

"There is no horizontal Stratification of society in this country like the rocks in the earth, that hold one class down below forevermore, and let another come to the surface and stay there forever. Our Stratification is like the ocean, where every individual drop is free to move, and where from the sternest depths of the mighty deep any drop may come up to glitter on the highest wave that rolls."

James A. Garfield

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