November 2011


President Garfield's front porch

I am not a political historian. I’m proof that it is quite possible to get an advanced degree in American history and know very little about presidents.

James A. Garfield is famous for having been assassinated—and in the history of medicine, he’s famous for having been killed by his doctors rather than his assassin. But I didn’t know what kind of person he was, or what he stood for. Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic went very far toward convincing me that Garfield was the most admirable, honest, intelligent person to ever go into politics. I was so impressed by this portrait (despite suspecting it to be hagiographic) that when I was in Cleveland last week I drove out of my way to visit the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.

Millard’s strongly narrative history combines the stories of Garfield’s life and political career with the stories of Charles Guiteau, his eventual assassin, and of Alexander Graham Bell, who basically invented a metal detector while trying to find the bullets in the president’s body. But Garfield’s life story is enormously compelling in itself. The last president raised in a log cabin, he was able to attend school because his widowed mother farmed to support the family. (The ranger at the Garfield Historic Site dismissively referred to this formidable woman, Liza Garfield, as “Grandma” throughout the whole tour.) He was a natural scholar; the school at which he took a janitor position in exchange for tuition hired him as a teacher just a few years later. He served as a college president, farmed, read books aloud with his family, fought in Congress for freedmens’ rights. When he was nominated for president against his will after a contentious balloting at the 1880 Republican convention, he didn’t campaign in the modern sense but went back to Mentor. He would give speeches to the gathered politicians and journalists from his front porch. An opponent of the spoils system, civil service reform was high on his political agenda.

When the disturbed Guiteau shot Garfield just a few months into his presidency, Garfield’s body was placed at the center of the debates over the germ theory and Listerian practices in contemporary surgery. His doctors poked around in the wound in his side, looking for the bullets; he died of sepsis eventually, excruciatingly. I was surprised to learn that even in 1881, after the autopsy, it was widely believed that his doctors had killed him. (I had thought that this was a case of historians looking back with contempt on ineffective medical practice.) Guiteau even offered this widely held opinion in the courtroom as an argument in his defense.

Garfield was mourned extravangantly. His widow, Lucretia, devoted the rest of her life to promoting his legacy, collecting his papers and founding a memorial library at the house in Mentor, a progenitor of the presidential library movement. Though Garfield’s papers are now at the Library of Congress, his books are still in Mentor. What a missed opportunity–the historic site could use his books to help visitors understand his views on modern farming, statecraft, religion (he was a Disciples minister), and science, rather than putting them behind glass and saying how silly the titles of those old books were. I learned so much about Garfield’s life and death from Millard’s compelling book that I wished that the interpretation of his historic house would demonstrate that same sense of the continued importance and power of Garfield’s story.

*Book source: review copy from the publisher.

Last week was the 54th annual SHOT  conference, which was co-located in Cleveland with the History of Science Society and the Society for the Social Studies of Science. I had a lovely time, and wrote up reports on three excellent papers for the Atlantic.

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