The book group took on this 2011 book with the reluctance of several members. It deals, after all, with that somewhat distant period of American history between the civil War and World War I and focuses on the assassination of President James Garfield, one of the string of presidents thought of today as non-entities. As we got into the book, however, all were taken by the immediacy of the political situation and assassination and by Candice Millard’s skillful weaving together of the political intrigues before and after Garfield’s election, the insanity of the assassin Charles Guiteau, the medical treatment of the President, and Alexander Graham Bell’s frantic efforts to perfect a device to locate the bullet.
The years following the Civil War were marked by deep political divisions and rapid technological change. On the political side, reconstruction was ended in 1877 leaving civil rights issues unresolved, as they would remain for decades longer. It was a time of enormous industrial expansion, with railroads, electricity, telephones, elevators, photography, and many other life-altering technologies becoming commercialized. Millard brings some of this to life in a way that made us feel at home in the 1880s.
Garfield himself comes as a surprise. From a log cabin background in frontier Ohio, he proved an able scholar and was president of a small liberal arts college in Ohio while still in his 20s. He served with distinction in the Civil War, securing Kentucky as a part of the Union, and becoming a Brigadier General. Meanwhile, he had been elected to the Ohio legislature and the US Congress where he served until his compromise nomination by a stalemated Republican convention in 1880. Millard presents him as a centrist politician, committed among other things to merit-based civil service appointments that would have ended the spoils system where a newly elected administration could replace the entire federal work force from top to bottom. Garfield’s personal integrity and respect may have offered a bridge across political divides, and might have reconciled the post-reconstruction south, African-Americans, the conservative branch of the Republican Party (the “Stalwarts”), and Garfield’s own progressive branch of the Republican Party (the “Half-Breeds,” later exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt). We can only speculate how the destiny of the Republic was altered by his assassination and whether later controversies might have been lessened or avoided had Garfield been able to complete his presidency.
Millard also portrays very real personalities, including Garfield’s likeable family, the venal Senator Roscoe Conkling, the arrogant Doctor Bliss, the utterly crazy Charles Guiteau, and the hyperactive Alexander Bell. There are other characters we would have liked to know better, such as Doctor Susan Edson, a woman physician who was allowed only a subordinate role in treating the wounded Garfield, and Julia Sand, whose letters gave remarkably salient political advice to Vice-President Chester Arthur as he assumed the presidency.
Millard’s excellent telling of these interrelated stories won over all the members of the book group. A remote period became very immediate. Millard gives lucid clinical descriptions of the medical treatment of the wounded president by American practitioners who still resisted antiseptic practices that had gained acceptance in Europe, and that would probably have avoided the sepsis that ultimately killed Garfield after ten agonizing weeks of highly questionable treatment. Though we know the outcome, Millard lets us feel the suspense as flawed characters pile tragedy upon tragedy to undo an admirable hero and change American destiny. — Bill Smith