Sometimes when I contemplate personal ambition, and what the point of it all is, I think about how many presidents there are who were big hot-shots in their day, but they are virtually unknown in modern times.
It just takes a few minutes scanning my child’s laminated “Presidents of the United States” placemat to realize this. Millard Fillmore? Zachary Taylor? Maybe they would have had a better life if they had just tended a garden and hugged their grandkids more? But that is a defeatist mindset and that is so unlike me, even though I have wondered about this.
Do you know much about James Garfield? I knew he was a president in the 1800s some time, and that he was assassinated but, beyond that, I didn’t know much.
But then I read Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.
This account is a wonderfully-painted portrait of the life and times of James Garfield, with cameos of other key players in that era of history. I came away with a true sense of what people were reading about and thinking about (what the “buzz” was) in the late 19th Century. This book also evoked a lot of emotion in me, particularly as it neared its end. I was surprised by that, since I don’t typically react so emotionally to books. How could this long-dead president’s life affect me so much?
Garfield had lowly origins, was a friend to African Americans in the fight for civil rights, and he actively opposed his own nomination for the presidency. He loved his family, and his books, and he loved life. He was always quick to forgive. He was a most exemplary leader.
This book is also about contemporary political figures, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and his efforts to save Garfield’s life, Garfield’s deranged assassin Charles Guiteau, and the doctors, including one with a particularly big ego, who ultimately were responsible for Garfield’s death. Doctors at the time ridiculed antisepsis, all the while poking their bacteria-laden fingers deep into Garfield’s wounds, as he lay on a dirty train depot floor.
Millard’s book about Garfield is wrenching and compelling and so very good. I highly recommend it.