James A. Garfield is the president virtually no one knows. I didn’t and never visited his home when I lived in nearby Cleveland. Because of this book, I hope to make that pilgrimage and learn more about a figure who may have been the greatest president Ohio produced, had he lived through his term. Candace Millard’s account of Garfield’s life and death is that good.
This is not a full biography but she sketches the outline of his literal rise from a log cabin boyhood and the early loss of his father, to his presidency of what later became Hiram College, to his political career (he never sought office, including the presidency) and his brief presidency and his fight against corrupt political patronage.
She interweaves her account of Garfield’s life and sufferings with the story of his insane assassin, Charles Guiteau, and his benighted physician, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, whose refusal to use the antiseptic procedures introduced by Joseph Lister and his repeated probing of Garfield’s wound introduced the infections that killed him. Left alone, Garfield would probably have recovered. We also see the efforts of Alexander Graham Bell to perfect a device to detect the bullet’s location (he would have had Bliss permitted him to search the left side of Garfield’s body.
As she concludes the books she looks at the way Garfield’s death transformed American politics. In some ways, it re-united a country still suffering the divisions of the Civil War. It motivated a crusade against political corruption and the introduction of the Civil Service, led by Chester Arthur, a product of Roscoe Conkling’s political machine, whose life and presidency was turned around by the letters of a mysterious correspondent, Julia Sand, who urged him to heed his better angels.
All in all, even though the subject was somber, Millard’s deftly written account was an engaging read and sparked my interest to know more about President Garfield, described after death by a friend as “a man who loved to play croquet and romp with his boys upon his lawn at Mentor, who read Tennyson and Longfellow at fifty with as much enthusiastic pleasure as at twenty, who walked at evening with his arm around the neck of a friend in affectionate conversation, and whose sweet, sunny, loving nature not even twenty years of political strife could warp.”