Monday, May 28, 2012

I Heart James Garfield

Since it's Memorial Day, I thought it would be a good time to tell you about one of the best books I've read lately--one about someone who lost his life in the service of his country.  When I was looking up library books on presidents for Jack, I came across Destiny of the Republic:  A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President and thought it sounded interesting, so I requested it.  And now I have a new favorite president.  

James Garfield had a hard start in life.  His father died when he was a toddler and his mother worked hard to keep from having to give her children to a wealthy family to raise.  Garfield worked on canals, went to school, taught, preached, fought in the Civil War, became president of a college, and eventually a congressman for Ohio.  He was so well-liked and respected that when he went to the 1880 Republican convention to nominate a friend, he came home with the nomination himself, even though he tried to prevent it from taking place.

In his later life, he loved his wife dearly, but when they had not been married long, he had an affair.  I know this doesn't sound surprising for a politician, but stay with me.  Even though he wasn't sure if he loved his wife, he broke off the affair and returned to her, writing,

“I believe after all I had rather be respected than loved if I can’t be both.  I hope when you…balance up the whole of my wayward self, you will still find, after the many proper and heavy deductions are made, a small balance left on which you can base some respect and affection.”

Take that, John Edwards.
The book focuses on the events leading up to July 2, 1881, when Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau.  It follows the president over the next ten weeks until his death from infection from doctors literally poking around in the wound without washing their hands.  It also follows Alexander Graham Bell and his attempts to invent a tool to locate the bullet in the president.  Even at the time of the president's autopsy, it was clear that his death was caused by his medical care, not by his gunshot wound.

The other part of the book that was very interesting to me was the reaction of the nation to a possible Chester Arthur presidency.  Arthur was a strong ally of one of Garfield's biggest political opponents, Roscoe Conkling, and was widely thought to be completely unprepared for such a job as the presidency and even suspected by some as having been involved in the shooting, or at the very least, to blame for it.  During the weeks between the shooting and Garfield's death, Arthur began receiving letters from an invalid named Julia Sand, who, in a nutshell, told him he needed to buck up and be the best president he could be, though she said it much more eloquently.

“Your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right’—adding gloomily—‘He won’t succeed, though—making a man President cannot change him.’  But making a man President can change him!  Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant in half a life.  If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.  Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you—but not to beg you to resign.  Do what is more difficult & more brave.  Reform!”
She encouraged him to break his ties with his somewhat shady political past, saying, “It is not the proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong, but it is a proof of it…to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it.”  And you know what?  He did.  He ditched Conkling and ended up being liked and respected by the American people.  Because he got some letters from some woman he'd never met and took her advice.  Can you see that happening today?  I got all fired up and said I thought it would be great to live back then, until Jay pointed out that we'd likely die of some nasty and completely preventable disease.  I would like to keep modern medical care, but wouldn't it be great to have politicians like that today?  Instead of...Gah.  I don't even want to think about it.

Read this book!  It comes out in paperback in a couple of weeks and can be yours for less than $11.  It's well worth it. I'm in line for River of Doubt at the library and if it's half as good as Destiny of the Republic I'll be happy.


Michele said...

Thanks Jen! I am putting this on my book list! Justin loves learning about the Presidents and I can share (some) of the info in this book with him. He loves to debate and talk about history and this will arm me with a bit of knowledge!

Rachel said...

So you think when I'm finished with The Happiness Project I should request it at the library? Will it keep my (low) attention span?

Shonda said...

Wow! What a great review! Makes me totally want to read that book!