From George Washington to Barrack Obama, forty-four men have served as president of the United States. Some names we recognize as founding fathers, others because we associate them with wars, the Great Depression, our hometowns, current events. None of us at the meeting knew much about President Garfield before reading Candice Millard’s book, Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. I barely remembered that he had been assassinated, let alone that he served less than six months before being shot and then lived for nearly three months before succumbing to an infection. We liked the book, found it easy to read and were impressed by President Garfield’s character and constitution. Although I found the depiction of President Garfield almost too saintly, we accepted the book’s accuracy because it has been well-reviewed and includes copious notes.
We started the discussion with an absent member’s suggestion that medicine hasn’t really changed much – hospital workers still often don’t wash their hands enough and many don’t get flu shots. Although some of us felt that we are so much more advanced now that we couldn’t agree, we also couldn’t help but think of the recent re-used needle scandal that convicted Dr. Dipak Desai; and of the mother and newborns that died of undiagnosed tuberculosis this last month. Our incredulity that Doctor Bliss’ authority could go unchallenged was tempered by our discussion – not only is truth stranger than fiction, but it is always easier to see the truth in hindsight. I was reminded of the member who told us about penicillin toothpaste.
We briefly discussed the changes in the approachability of the president, the politics of patronage, the change in Chester Arthur, the love story between Garfield and his wife, and the insanity of his assassin. We did not actually use the entire hour for the discussion. The book had little that was controversial but much that was new to us, and the discussion was thoughtful and considered, as is the written review another absent member gave me to share, and I will post it as a comment below. Destiny of the Republic is a book about President James Garfield, but also about the country, moving from war toward a new millennium. I was particularly moved by individual contributions – Julia Sand, who wrote to vice president Arthur and inspired him to rise to the challenge of the presidency, and all the individuals who lined the tracks of Garfield’s train as he traveled to the sea, finally pushing the train up the last hill to his cottage. Individual contributions and shared community experiences make a difference!
- Other works discussed:
- Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
- Jerry Silverman’s Folk Song Encyclopedia v. 1 (includes a song about Charles Guiteau)
- American President (PBS Series – DVD)