Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
Anchor Books, 2017
432 pp., $17.00
Destiny of the Republic
Good written history manages to accomplish two incommensurable tasks at once: it renders the strange, familiar and the familiar, strange. Millard ushers us into a world where it makes perfect sense for the President of the United States to stroll about town entirely unaccompanied; where the White House is a rat-infested dump, barely suited for human habitation; where hospitals are the last place you'd want to find yourself if sick or injured; and a world in which most American doctors remain stubbornly steadfast in their refusal to accept the germ-theory of disease, even though such views—and medical treatments—had become commonplace throughout Europe.
Millard relates the shocking story that became widely known within a few years following Garfield's death: the bullet lodged in Garfield's back was not life-threatening. Had a common tramp been shot in the same way, he almost certainly would have survived! The president's death was the result of sepsis-induced infection that riddled his body, introduced by the continual probing of his wound by multiple doctors using unsanitized fingers and crude, soiled instruments. Garfield died because of rather than despite receiving the "best medical attention available" to him in the United States.
The utterly self-defeating race to save the president's life transfixed the nation, and enlisted some of its most resourceful minds. A storyline Millard threads throughout the book is that of Alexander Graham Bell, the man who had achieved worldwide fame for his invention of the telephone only a few years prior to Garfield's presidency. Upon hearing news of the shooting, Bell immediately became obsessed with developing an instrument—a crude machine he called an "induction balance"—that he hoped would detect the exact location of the bullet in the president's back (it was tried on the president twice with no success). Even though the bullet and its extraction would have done nothing to save Garfield's life, Bell's story provides a window into the makeshift technologies of the day and the limits of medical knowledge little more than a century ago. (Millard reports that Bell's invention was eventually improved and would be used to save lives in the years prior to the development of X-ray technology).
Reading Millard's rousing account of the absurd act of lunacy that threatened the Garfield's life—and the ham-fisted comedy of errors that assured his death—is a useful exercise in historical thinking. While she succeeds in preserving some of the past's strangeness, she also reminds us that certain features of our shared history persist from age to age. Here we observe that there is nothing especially new about the political corruption or fractious partisan politics of our own era; that senseless acts of violence are an abiding part of the human experience; that although American confidence in technological mastery can yield spectacular progress, it too often rests upon an obstinate, reckless hubris; and that great national tragedies have a way of uniting even the most divided American spirit (in this case, for the first time since the Civil War).
While we can be sure that whatever vivid memories of this consequential moment in our history that Millard has restored to us won't likely remain in our consciousness for long, this fine book is a tribute to an enduring human enterprise. We remain hopelessly devoted to the task of reconstructing our past as a service to our feeble collective memory—and, as long we do, there is at least some small chance that we will not become entirely imprisoned by the demands and the folly of our present age.
Jay Green is associate professor of history at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
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