If you were asked to name every president who was assassinated, would you remember James Garfield? He was president for only a matter of months, part of a generally undistinguished cohort that served between Grant and McKinley. There is no great legislation that we credit to Garfield, no famous speeches or charismatic wife. On the surface, Garfield was nothing more than a generally decent man, a loving father, a good husband–an ineffectual president, although to be fair he spent a third of his term in office dying of a gunshot wound. Below the surface, however, it turns out that Garfield was a fascinating person with an amazing life story, and someone who could’ve been remembered as one of our greatest presidents, if he had lived. Destiny of the Republic is the story of why he didn’t.
(Disclaimer: not only am I an absolute fanatic for presidential trivia, I’m also a public health professional who loves nothing more than to read about the history of my field. This is not only the story of Garfield’s assassination, but also touches on Joseph Lister, who was attempting to introduce his antiseptic methods to U.S. doctors at around this same time. That right there would’ve been enough for me to give it at least 3 stars. If American history and germ theory aren’t your bag, I have no idea if you would like this book, but it was right up my alley.)
Destiny of the Republic glides briefly over Garfield’s difficult childhood and young adulthood, before plunging us into Garfield’s unlikely presidential candidacy, election, and brief presidency. The year was 1880, and the United States was still fractured from the Civil War. Garfield was a veteran, he was eloquent, he had endured a childhood of almost Dickensian poverty–in short, he was a dream political candidate. Voters believed he could reunite the country in a way that his predecessors had failed to do. When he was shot, the entire country mourned.
I could seriously go on about this book for ages. It covers so much–Charles Guiteau, Alexander Graham Bell, Roscoe Conkling, Chester Arthur–and does it so well. It does justice to a incredible period in U.S. history, and brings to life a remarkable man whose life was cut short by not only a bullet, but the unfortunate medical practices of the time. There are so many what-ifs in this story, and little things that if only they’d gone right, maybe he would’ve survived. It’s not just interesting but deeply sad. Just read it. It’s fantastic.