Review by Geoffrey Wawro
Destiny of the Republic
Pub. Ed. $28.95
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011 / September 20, 2011
Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 x .9 inches
Publisher: Doubleday Broadway Pub/Div Rh
Readers will recall that James Garfield was the second of four American presidents assassinated while in office, but most will recall only that. Candice Millard has written a scintillating new book that peers into the Gilded Age and assassination plot of 1881.Destiny of the Republic
tells a story that has never been told in quite this way. We know that the 20th president was shot by a deranged office-seeker—Charles Guiteau—and that it plunged the U.S. into grief and worry, but Millard restores the urgency of the moment, when the fate of the republic seemed at stake.
Roscoe Conkling, senator from New York, Ulysses S. Grant ally and stalwart, and political fixer par excellence, stands at the heart of this book. Having failed to get Grant to seek a third term in 1880, Conkling tried to secure the presidential nomination for Chester A. Arthur—who had done Conkling’s bidding in the fantastically profitable New York Customs House—but reform elements in the GOP insisted on a cleaner candidate. James Garfield thus became the surprise nominee, with Conkling’s creature, Chester Arthur, relegated to vice-presidential nominee.
Garfield’s first (and only) presidential achievement was a reform of civil service hiring. Enter Guiteau, a chronic failure, who thought he could snag a good government job simply by posing as a Conkling stalwart. Garfield never replied to Guiteau’s notes, so the applicant stalked the president for several days. Readers will be stunned by his ease of access to the president, walking in and out of the White House to drop off job applications and shadowing the president on his daily walks. Guiteau finally caught up to Garfield in July 1881 at the Baltimore & Potomac train station, and shot him twice.
As Garfield suffered beneath the awkward probes of his doctors—one bullet has passed through his arm, the other had lodged in the fatty tissue below his pancreas—Millard probes a deeper mystery. It would spoil the book to give away much here, but Arthur’s convenient presence on the sidelines certainly hints at a conspiracy. Conkling, The New York Times
opined shortly before the assassination, “would be Caesar or nothing,” and Guiteau may have been his Brutus.
As a historical curiosity, Alexander Graham Bell involved himself in the tragedy. Poor Garfield lingered for three months on his deathbed, attended by a ham-handed array of doctors, none of whom could locate or remove Guiteau’s bullet. In fact, had the grimy surgeons—none of whom believed in antisepsis or the dangers of “invisible germs”—merely left Garfield alone, he would have recovered; their non-stop cutting and probing with dirty fingers and instruments killed him. Aware of the president’s agony, Bell worked overtime in his Washington lab to invent a machine that would find
the bullet and permit its extraction.
Bell’s machine failed, but so did Conkling’s. Stung by the tragedy of Garfield’s murder, President Arthur shocked everyone—his New York mentor most of all—by continuing
Garfield’s reforms of the civil service and proving Garfield’s statement that “light itself is a great corrective…wrongs and abuses that are grown in darkness disappear like owls and bats before the light of day.”