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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Republic” offers readers look into past

    If any career could guarantee universal and eternal fame, president of the United States would be the one. But when you think about it, how many of those 44 names are truly close to the hearts of every American? Even if the names come easily, how many of their accomplishments, words, and personalities are known?

    This is the premise of “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard, an examination of the assassination of James Garfield, an obscure president who, the author reveals, deserves to be anything but.

    Elected in 1880, Garfield took office in March of the next year. His tenure lasted only until July. While he was boarding a train in Washington, D.C., a mentally ill Charles Guiteau shot Garfield, angry that the president would not grant him the ambassadorship to Paris. Garfield clung to life until September, when he finally succumbed to his wounds and died.

    Millard masterfully demonstrates the experience that this sad, strange episode in American history represented for every American at the time. Garfield was beloved by both the black Americans whose equality he fiercely advocated for and by white Southerners as a fair and kind leader.

    For the first time since the Civil War, Americans on all sides of the rift felt united under their president. His loss was felt acutely across the spectrum, and Millard evocatively captures the pain his death brought to all citizens of the country.

    But Millard’s powerful writing shines most in descriptions of individuals close to the assassination. The assassin himself is profiled in detail, and the long list of his truly bizarre behavior makes him far more tragic than evil. Guiteau clearly was a man allowed to slip through the cracks tragically.

    Oddly enough, perhaps the true villains of the story are Garfield’s doctors, specifically his chief physician, Doctor (that’s a first name, not a title) Willard Bliss. Bliss guarded his patient and the course of his treatment with jealous spite, and Millard’s narrative makes quite clear that Bliss’s own prestige was more important to him than the president’s prognosis.

    The only hero, aside from the president himself, was, interestingly enough, Alexander Graham Bell. The famous inventor took it upon himself to invent a device to find the bullet inside the president’s body. No one deserves to die, and Millard’s painstaking and wonderfully written assessment of his personality shows that James Garfield was perhaps one of the least deserving in history.

    “Destiny of the Republic” is a fascinating read and an excellent work of history. More than that, however, it is a service to Americans, introducing them to one of their forgotten heroes. The book leaves the impression that, had he not been so tragically killed, James Garfield would probably have been one of the greatest presidents America has ever had.

    In a time when narrow-mindedness and partisanship are rampant, it’s a real comfort to know that we once had a leader whose heart was big enough for everyone — a picture Millard paints beautifully.

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