Books, Documentaries, Reviews: April 27, 2016
DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC
I found this book really interesting.
It’s about the assassination of James Garfield in 1881. But it is also about this era in our history.
I did not know much about this era. I did work on Washington and Jackson, and being from Georgia more than anywhere else, I grew up with discussions of Civil War history. I have studied around and about the 1920s and forward, especially the economic issues and theories. But I knew little or nothing about James Garfield. Or Chester Arthur, the VP who succeeded him. Or this formative period in American history when government jobs were given out by the president in a “spoils” system and presidents walked around unprotected, and anyone could come inside the White House and ask to see the president. Garfield’s death sparks Arthur to create a civil service where jobs are awarded on merit as a sub-text to the assassination is that an insane man wanted one of these jobs, though he was totally unqualified for any one of them.
Apparently Garfield was brilliant. Beyond brilliant. He embodied the “American Dream” in that his father died very early and his mother and brother really struggled not only to survive, but to give Garfield the education his mind so richly deserved. That mind and the respect he earned (as he was not only good-natured, but ethical and moral), took him all the way to the presidency. This was an era when education was highly prized in and of itself and highly respected by those who did not have it.
He did not want to be president. This era was marked by conventions where ballots could go on and on until someone emerged that everyone felt they could support. Garfield was elected in the Republican Convention on the 36th ballot!! He went on to win the general election.
Alexander Graham Bell is featured in this story as his metal detector was used to try to locate the bullet lodged in Garfield’s back. Bell did not find the bullet as the arrogant doctor in charge would only let him search on the side where he had determined the bullet to be. The bullet’s path had taken it to the other side, of course.
Joseph Lister’s work on germ theory and antiseptics is discussed as Garfield’s doctors did not believe in keeping wounds sterile. They repeatedly probed Garfield’s wound, introducing germs that created an infection that went all over his internal body, forming huge pus cavities. The main doctor’s last name was Bliss, so the aphorism “ignorance is Bliss” has newfound meaning for me.
And the great irony is that if Garfield had not been immediately surrounded by well-meaning but ignorant doctors, if he had been on a battlefield or in one of the hospitals, as dirty as they were, he would have survived his wound. The bullet was not in a place to threaten his life. His body would not have been continually probed with fingers and unsterile instruments. Literally hundreds of men of that time were walking around with bullets in their bodies from the Civil War.
The story of the “longest GOP convention in history” resonates today if today’s GOP goes to a contested convention this summer.