Sixteen years after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the president of the United States still strolled around Washington on foot, unaccompanied by security. When he was going on a trip, he casually took a carriage to the railroad station and headed for the platform.
And so, a mentally deranged man who has gone down in history as a “disappointed officer seeker” was able to shoot James Garfield in 1881 without any real hindrance as the president was about to board a train a few months after his inauguration. Bad as that was, it wasn’t the worst of it: The wound should not have been fatal. Garfield died 10 weeks later of an infection caused by bullheaded doctors who actively rejected the landmark medical advance known as antisepsis, already common in Europe.
Most Americans learn something of this in history class, but the compelling details are little remembered. Candice Millard, author of the best-selling River of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt, revives the story of Garfield’s life and death in The Destiny of the Republic, making a strong case that he was on course to be one of our more notable presidents when Charles Guiteau raised his gun. Millard weaves together the life journeys of Garfield and Guiteau with that of a somewhat unexpected third character: the estimable Alexander Graham Bell, who was already famous for inventing the telephone and labored passionately to build a device that could detect the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body.
Garfield was a remarkable person, who rose from poverty to become a scholar, Civil War hero and respected politician. While his presidency was too short for real achievement, his death did lead to civil service reform, crucial improvements in medicine and the perfection of Bell’s “induction balance” device. Millard’s spirited book helps restore him to an appropriate place in our consciousness.