A few years ago, I joined a musical theatre group. The first show I was involved in was a “concert” – a selection of songs from a variety of shows, all on a similar theme – with the theme “the darker side of musicals”. There were several songs from the Sondheim show “Assassins,” including “The Ballad of Guiteau”.
To be honest, it was the first time I’d ever heard of Guiteau (or Czolgosz, the assassin of McKinley). I vaguely knew about Garfield, but only as one of the list – an assassinated president, or one of the Reconstruction presidents; someone to be recited, not someone to be learned. We spent almost no time on the late 19th century in my history classes in high school, and what we did learn was the social changes – things like yellow journalism or the labor safety reforms. Reconstruction went from Andrew Johnson to the Civil Rights movement with hardly a stop in between.
But the song is interesting, and I wanted to know how accurate it was. So I went on Wikipedia, read a bit, got even more interested, and heard about this book. Of course, Reconstruction-era American politics is not hugely popular or available in the UK. Luckily, my mom was also interested and bought it for our joint Kindle account.
I came away from this book with three overwhelming conclusions. First, Guiteau was certifiable and should have been institutionalised. I understand why he was executed. But there’s not a chance that he understood the moral implications of what he did. He transformed single, isolated events into a divine mandate, and he genuinely believed that other people – people like Chester Arthur (the vice president) and General Sherman (of the march to the sea), whom he’d never met – would back him up.
Second, Garfield was amazing. He was incredibly intelligent, and once he got into the habit of learning (which did take him a while), he was unstoppable. He started off in nearly devastating poverty, and was president of his alma mater by the time he was 25. He was a family man – incredibly close to his mother [his father died when he was under the age of 2] and siblings, increasingly devoted to his wife, and an involved father. He didn’t want to be president – he didn’t even really want to be in politics, but saw it as the best way that he could make a difference – but when it was pushed on him, he did as much as he could to be the best president he could be while still staying true to his own values and ideals. Even when he was dying, he was unselfish: telling the doctors that they were doing a good job, telling his wife that he wasn’t really in pain, doing what he could to make even his death not about him.
Third, Doctor Bliss was almost completely responsible for Garfield’s death. Guiteau was crazy, but he wasn’t wrong when he said that he was responsible for the shooting but not the death. Bliss had an undeserved sense of entitlement that led to him claiming sole responsibility for Garfield’s care, even to the extent of keeping his family away. He put his own reputation and desires above the care of his patient, and that is just wrong no matter what year it is. I don’t care that the medical convention at the time was anti-antisepsis, or that hospitals weren’t acceptable/accessible for anyone other than the indigent. This is the President of the United States. GET A SECOND OPINION. When the man’s personal doctor comes in? LET HIM COME IN. When Alexander Graham Bell comes in with his device to locate the bullet? LET HIM LOCATE THE BULLET – instead of telling him where to look and not allowing him to look anywhere else in the body (even as a control point! And had Garfield on a metal-spring mattress when Bell is using a metal detector!) The anti-antisepsis stuff I can forgive, because that was the conventional wisdom at the time, but the fact that he refused to acknowledge that septicemia had set in? The fact that he blatantly lied in all his press releases saying that the president was fine? And the fact that he refused to allow any sort of dissent for his opinion even after Lucretia Garfield said publicly that she’d never asked him to be her husband’s doctor? That’s delusion of an entirely different kind than Guiteau’s, and was much more devastating to Garfield.
Those were my main conclusions, but there was a lot else in the book that I found new and interesting. (I was coming in with almost no knowledge, so pretty much everything was new and interesting.) I didn’t know much about the Republican party post-Civil War, so I didn’t know much about Conkling and the spoils system. I ended up being a bit proud of Chester Arthur for breaking free of Conkling’s hold and carrying on with Garfield’s civil service reforms – and I must admit that I gave a bit of an evil laugh when Conkling lost his seat through his own hubris.
I also didn’t know anything about the reaction to Garfield’s death. In the book, the way it comes across – and I certainly hope that this is accurate – is that Garfield was personable enough and popular enough with all groups of people that the announcement of his death affected everyone – from freed black people to die-hard southerners to political rivals – and brought them closer as a nation. People didn’t riot against each other; they may have banded together against Guiteau but society didn’t fracture. Emotionally reuniting the country is something that Garfield may have been able to do while living – he was certainly making progress at it – and something that was sadly achieved by his death.
As for the book itself, it was a very quick read – Millard makes it entertaining as well as informative, and there’s nothing in it that can be considered dry or unnecessary. It seemed a bit short to me, but that could be because I’m also reading a book about the history of the Mediterranean, and I’m only 20% through it after almost six weeks. (That one is verrrrrry long and dense.) It didn’t feel incomplete; it just went very quickly and I still want to know more. This is especially surprising because I generally don’t care about 19th century politics – but Garfield-the-person was so interesting to me that I want to know him better. [I’m satisfied with my level of knowledge of Guiteau now though. *shudder*]
To sum up: I would recommend this book, whether you’re already interested in the time period or not. Also, give “The Ballad of Guiteau” a listen and be amazed at Sondheim’s writing and research (as well as Millard’s).
….now to find something similar about Czolgosz and McKinley…..