Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
When I was a kid growing up in northern NJ in the mid ’50’s, I was sent to summer camp in the Berkshire Mountains in western MA. I went there for three summer stints of 8 weeks each, at ages 10, 11 and 12. Leaving home early each summer on a long train ride beginning at Grand Central Station in NYC was tearful with pangs of what would now be called ‘separation anxiety’. Back then, Camp Monterey was near wilderness, the only sign of recognizable civilization being a Friendly’s ice cream parlor way off in Great Barrington, known for its confection of the “Awful Awful”, a milkshake served in a container which was – to my child eyes – about the size of an oil drum. It was there, in Lake Garfield, that I first learned to swim. In that era, I made no association whatever to the name of the Lake.
Fast forward to today, where I once again have the occasion to learn that things are not always as they seem. Covid-19 has offered the opportunity to read without the guilty suspicion I ought to be doing something else. Add to that the fact I receive daily email offerings of book recommendations from Amazon Prime. I scan these with a jaundiced eye, alert to Amazon’s SJW ulterior motives in promoting some books over others. I thus purchased Destiny of the Republic, and eventually associated President Garfield’s name with my very intense, nostalgic memories of Camp Monterey and Lake Garfield. Study of Google Earth sadly reveals that the wooded wilderness I remember is now developed with large homes, each surrounded by several acres of land; not quite a subdivision, but no longer ‘the woods’. There remains not the slightest trace of the camp – no cabins, ballfields, assembly hall, stables, infirmary; no docks or the three swimming cribs divided by depth – from beginner to intermediate to advanced.
Knowing nothing about James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, reviews persuaded me that Destiny of the Republic was worth reading to fill in this gap. I am glad I did for many reasons. Though the title is somewhat of an overreach, the book is well-researched and James Garfield was surely an interesting and surprisingly (to me, at least) promising man. Fully one third of the 354 pages are extended citations of sources. Much insight is available, as Garfield kept a diary for much of his life and corresponded extensively with his wife ‘Crete’, Lucretia. Every chapter begins with a Garfield quotation; each reveals a depth of character and a great deal of wisdom.
In the background of the moving portrait of Garfield’s life is a thorough exposition of the political and social scenery during and particularly following the Civil War. James’ father died suddenly when he was very young. As a result, James – the youngest of five children – was raised by his strong and devoted mother, who saw to it that he was educated. He first excelled at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute , then at Geauga Academy near his home. He worked part-time as a carpenter to support himself. Despite never having seen it, James was drawn to the sea and left school in an attempt to become a seaman. He got only as far as work on a canal boat, from which he fell into the water and nearly drowned. A subsequent bout of malaria sent him home for a prolonged convalescence. Returned to his mother’s influence by virtue of this illness, he went to Williams College, where he was salutatorian and later read the law. His talent for mathematics was demonstrated by his novel proof of the Pythagorean Theorem using a trapezoid.
The Civil War led him to volunteer and he promptly demonstrated his leadership abilities by turning around a losing battle in Kentucky and was credited with driving Southern forces from the state. He participated in several other battles, distinguished himself and rose to the rank of General. At the same time, he was asked by Republicans to run for Congress, became known as a superb orator and was asked by President Lincoln to refrain from fighting, as he was more essential to the war effort by service in Congress. A staunch supporter of the war and an ardent, longstanding abolitionist, his views of Lincoln were mixed. In contemplating the next Presidential election, he is quoted as believing the Republican Party “could do better” than Lincoln. Later selected by the Ohio legislature to be senator, it turned out he never served as he was unexpectedly elected President before he was due to assume the office of senator.
The 1880 Republican convention was a contentious affair. The party was deeply divided on two main issues: reconstruction and political patronage. As to the former, some favored harsh treatment of the South while others wanted to quickly normalize relations. Most Republicans favored advancing citizenship and the franchise to freed slaves despite southern intransigence. As to patronage, the ‘Stalwarts’ wanted to keep the status quo, ‘machine politics’, where elected officials could give lucrative positions to those who were owed political favors. The ‘Half breeds’ wanted civil service reform, based upon merit. The playing out of this tension as well as that of how freed African Americans ought to be treated, are important issues played out in the background of the book; It thus offers good insight into the history of those times, generally. Various political personages involved in both these important political issues are described in some detail.
Garfield delivered a nomination speech in Chicago to introduce fellow Ohioan and Treasury Secretary John Sherman, in serious consideration for the nomination. Garfield was chosen not only for his public speaking ability, but in part to diffuse his own popularity, lest he garner votes otherwise destined for Sherman. He delivered a powerful oration, but the convention was deadlocked through 35 ballots. On the 36th, Ulysses S Grant and James Blaine threw their support to Garfield and he was nominated on June 8, 1880. Chester Arthur was nominated for Vice President. Afterward, he said, candidly and honestly: “This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day”. Sounds like the kind of Presidential timber unavailable for harvest nowadays.
Interwoven with James Garfield’s life story are many interesting scenes from the life of Stalwart Charles Guiteau, his killer. Although it was not so determined at his trial, he was, actually, likely legally insane, though some of his sociopathic mental makeup has become somewhat pervasive in today’s society – particularly notions of entitlement to prestigious a government job. He firmly believed he was supremely qualified and that the President owed him a juicy ambassadorship; as a Stalwart, he convinced himself that Garfield’s death was necessary to save the nation. An interesting effect of the killing was the change it wrought in Chester Arthur, who became a much more substantial and principled President than he otherwise would have been, in all likelihood.
The medical angle is described in some detail and is also fascinating. The two gunshot wounds were not immediately fatal. Garfield survived for over four months under the care of a doctor William Bliss, who relied upon his notoriety to control all aspects of Garfield’s care, to the exclusion of physicians who subscribed to Lister’s new principles of antisepsis. Consequently, Bliss and those other doctors granted access to the President, repeatedly probed the wound with their fingers in a vain attempt to find the bullet (whose removal was unnecessary, though this was not understood at the time [and this principle is still unknown within the confines of script-writing and movie-making]). Alexander Graham Bell even became involved, having invented an electrical device to localize the bullet from outside the body. Here, again, the physician’s arrogance prevented finding the bullet. Dr. Bilss insisted the bullet was on the right side of the body and only permitted Bell to look there. It turned out, at autopsy, to be much to the left of midline – not that it would have mattered. James Garfield died of sepsis. His body was filled with absesses, which extended widely throughout his body. At the autopsy, the doctors were shocked and admitted they were wrong. Bliss fell into deserved disrepute, though submitted a bill to Congress for $25,000 ($660,000 in current dollars); he was paid $6500 “and not a penny more”.
Having begun knowing virtually nothing of this good man, was left with a heavy sadness by his premature death. His lost character represents a loss of goodness which might well have benefitted this nation greatly. I think he had a premonition of early death. That, and his wisdom, generally, is revealed by many wonderful quotations like –
“There is nothing in all the earth that you and i can do for the dead.
They are past our help and past our praise.
We can add to them no glory, we can give them no immortality. they do not need us, but forever and forever more we need them”. August 1880
In a similar vein (these are representative of quotations which head each chapter) –
“I would rather be beaten in Right than succeed in Wrong”.
“I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost, that the characters of men are moulded and inspired by what their fathers have done”.
“History is but the unrolled scroll of Prophecy”.
In part, my personal sadness was amplified by the location of Garfield’s death. He was transported, in extremis, to a beach resort his wife had previously visited to convalesce following an illness, Elberon, New Jersey. I had vacationed there as a young teenager and in this, the winter of my life, I remember the locale as an intense part of my lost youth. I even went to close-up satellite views of the area, (the house in which Garfield dies is gone, but a stone memorial exists at the site) which always serves to intensify such nostalgia. It did, indeed.
From the map of Elberon, I went to one of Lake Garfield in Massachusetts, which I took for granted was named for the President. As I said earlier, things are not always as they appear at first thought. I researched Lake Garfield and it turns out that it was named for a local family, not President Garfield. Nonetheless, this worthwhile book combined with my increasingly-decrepit human foibles to provoke a worthy, emotion-filled and intellectual romp through my own personal history and that of our once-promising nation. James Garfield’s loss to the progress of the United States cannot be quantified. It was likely, however, very significant.
Here is a link to the book on Amazon: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard.
There’s a lot about Garfield in Sarah Vowell’s book “Assassination Vacation” (2005). ISBN 0743260031
I really like her books even though she is kinda a lefty. These days we’re heating a lot about Lafayette Park, a public area beside the White House set aside for protesters—that reminded me of another great book of hers”Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” ISBN 1594631743 (2015). She’s very funny, and in her history books she isn’t polemical about her politics.