A current hot popular history book, Destiny of the Republic, has the most unlikely of subjects – President Garfield. Yes, James A. Garfield – remember him? If you don’t, it’s understandable; he was one in a parade of now-obscure late 19th century presidents … such as Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur. But author Candice Millard makes Garfield’s story worth knowing, and not just because he was the second U.S. president (after Lincoln) to be assassinated.
When I worked in D.C., I used to look upon Garfield’s monument and think about the grief and outrage that once gripped the nation, but was now reduced to a granite obstacle in the way of tour buses rumbling in front of the U.S. Capitol. Millard shows how Garfield’s legacy endured long after the anger evaporated, but in unexpected ways.
She also introduces us to an interesting array of characters such as Garfield’s Vice-President Chester Arthur, who hid away while Garfield was on his slow decline, and was rumored to be possibly complicit in the assassination. It didn’t help that Garfield’s assassin was a deranged if gleeful Arthur supporter. As if that wasn’t enough, Arthur was the target of his era’s birthers, who believed he was Canadian-born and thus ineligible to succeed Garfield to the presidency.
Garfield himself is portrayed as a man of extraordinary intelligence who, through his ambition, rose from a backwoods Ohio farm to Williams College, the Army officer ranks (during the Civil War), the House of Representatives, and eventually the White House. But he did so without that hardened glitter in the eye that bespeaks a lust for power.
Although Garfield wasn’t a saint (he had a D.C. mistress for awhile), Millard shows him to be a man who enjoyed the company of his friends and family (he reconciled with his wife), who had a longstanding passion for ensuring the full civil rights of African Americans. Plus he came up with a new proof for Pythagoras’s Theorem during his spare time in Congress – a remarkable feat in any age.
Millard plots her story in terms of the events leading up to – and following – Garfield’s assassination. I found that even though I knew how the story was going to end, her style makes for gripping reading. And after you read about Garfield’s post-assassination medical treatment, you’ll feel lucky to be alive in 2011.
Perhaps you recall Garfield as the subject of a question you missed on a high school social studies test. Or you might imagine he was one of those stiff dull men with heavy beards and heavier suits who populated the later decades of the 19th century. Destiny of the Republic introduces us to someone quite different, and reveals how the events of nearly-forgotten murder attempt in a long-vanished D.C. railroad station still reverberate today.