walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Destiny of the Republic_, Candice Millard

Subtitled: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President

We had a good turnout at Mayberry (<-- not its real name) Public Library for book group: 6 people. We all finished the book (this is somewhat amazing in and of itself) AND we all really liked it. AND we had a great discussion. I don't think this trifecta has _ever_ occurred in this group before. I'll be getting Millard's earlier book, and looking forward to future ones.

If you've ever given Garfield's assassination any thought at all (I had previous to this read a multi-page description of the medical "treatment" he was subjected to, but I hadn't really thought about the assassination part at all, Garfield's politics or anything else), well, you were ahead of all of us. Millard quite capably ties together several distinct threads to the tale in ways that avoid confusion and create a degree of insight into the third quarter of the 19th century that isn't easy to achieve.

The first thread is Garfield himself: his humble beginnings, his marriage and family life (Millard's treatment of his affair is sensitive and makes the reader like and understand everyone even more), his education, participation in the Civil War, nomination and then election to the Presidency. I don't think I had any real idea that Garfield is the Origin Point for the "no, no, please, don't nominate me" meme, nor did I realize how truly he embodied the log cabin Origin Story. Best of all, however, Millard conveys an idea of how deeply divided the party was at that time between those who wanted to continue traditional machine/partisan politics and a reform wing that wanted to professionalize more elements of governmental service.

The second thread is the assassin: Charles Guiteau. His history of craziness, influenced in part by his father's religious ideas and the Oneida colony (but even _they_ thought he was nuts) and the enabling of his sister until even she felt he was a threat to her. Running out on bills for clothes, for rent and train fare and abusing his wife during their brief marriage are enough to recognize him as mentally unbalanced -- the problem was he kept running a little too fast for people to actually institutionalize him.

The third thread is technology. Medical clashes over antisepsis are obviously crucial to the story (and an echo of authority/seniority vs. professionalism arises in this thread, too), but Alexander Graham Bell is an important character as he develops a device for using induction to detect balls and bullets inside a human body. I had no idea that this device would continue to be used down through the Vietnam War, when X-ray machines were unavailable in the field or the results they were producing were not helpful.

Weaving this all together are the women. Candice Millard does a stunningly good job of showing how important women were to all of these men, and in all of these events. They are obviously not front-and-center because of societal restrictions, but, in the the most clear-cut case, women Change the Outcome. Julia Sand's letters to Chester Arthur, which he improbably read, was influenced by and preserved, were written by a woman unknown and unrelated to the Vice President. She said in strong terms that he must become a better man as he became the President and he must not allow his weak and corrupt past to determine the future of the Nation.

So Chester Arthur implemented the reform plans that Garfield supported -- and then we all forgot the whole thing.

It's a great book. I expect I'll be rereading it in the future, because there was so much in it. Lucretia Garfield created the first Presidential Library and started a grand tradition of preserving presidential papers so we could go back in time through them and better understand our national heritage. The kids turned out well. Lister was decorated and lauded and eventually, because his ideas (and those of Semmelweis) won out, we all live a lot longer after trauma (and childbirth) than we otherwise would have. Good stuff.

Also, a very enjoyable read.

ETA: Oh, after reading this, I got to thinking about the list of assassins that Guiteau was one of. It seems that people who attempt to kill heads of state are really not connecting to reality as the rest of us understand it. I think I had assumed there must have been _some_ that had a coherent political platform/ideology/wtf that they thought would be advanced by assassination, but it turns out that might not be true. Like, at all. If you are defending against assassination, there are really two things you care about: crazy people, and getting shot accidentally by the armed guards who are protecting you.

But this conclusion may be influenced the by selection of universe. I think if you are looking at assassination in the context of drug lords, or Italian city-states, you could probably find "rational" assassinations. Altho maybe not -- they might have been part of an overall plan, but the person picked to do the deed may always be Not Sane.
Tags: book review, history, non-fiction
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