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President James A. Garfield

on May 28th, 2016 by admin

“There is no horizontal Stratification of society in this country like the rocks in the earth, that hold one class down below forevermore and let another come to the surface to stay there forever.  Our Stratification is like the ocean where every individual drop is free to move and where from the sternest depths of the mighty deep any drop may come up to glitter on the highest move that rolls.”

This statement was written by the greatest president we lost prematurely, James A. Garfield our twenty-first president.  I have to admit Garfield was not a president I knew much about.  It wasn’t until PBS ran a documentary based on Candice Millard’s excellent book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.  The circumstances surrounding his death are maddening.  Garfield was the perfect embodiment of what a president should be.

Raised in abject poverty in rural Ohio, Garfield’s mother gave all her savings, a total of seventeen dollars, to finance his education.  He even worked as a janitor to offset his tuition.  Within a few years he became professor and university president.  A true intellectual who never lost sight of his link with the everyman and everywoman; he showed genuine respect and goodwill towards the American people.  Less than twenty years after the Civil War, Garfield believed that black Americans should accorded the same rights as any American.  Stating in his inaugural address:

“The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution…..  It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both.  The emancipated race has already made remarkable progress.  With unquestioning devotion to the Union, with a patience and gentleness not born of fear, they have followed the light as God gave them to see light….  They deserve the generous encouragement of all good men.  So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws. (Bold added)….

That was the most incredible speech from a remarkable man.  This makes his death all the more senseless.  The man who shot Garfield, an individual named Charles Guiteau who I liken to a 19th century version of Lee Harvey Oswald.  A delusional narcissistic loser who never amounted to anything–Guiteau felt it was his responsibility to kill the president.

The president survived the gunshot.  It was his medical care afterwards that killed him.  Millard gives an account in excruciating detail of the president’s medical treatment.  Garfield’s injuries occurred during a time when the medical field was still in its medieval stage.  It wasn’t until British physician Dr. John Lister developed the method of sterilization using carbolic acid.  This not only included wound care it also included surgical room, patient room, and doctors and nurses sterilization.  Unfortunately, something so obvious and simple Dr. Lister had difficulty convincing the American medical establishment.  And this is where President Garfield’s agonizing death occurred.

Doctor D. Willard Bliss, a man who was at the death bed of President Abraham Lincoln, gave himself complete authority over the president’s medical care.  This would prove disastrous for Garfield because Bliss was a traditionalist in the most negative sense of the word.  Refusing to listen to the younger cutting edge physicians, he surrounded himself with other likeminded doctors.  This included placing his filthy fingers inside the entry wound of the bullet, using unsterilized probing tools in a painful, careless attempt at locating the bullet—the bullet was on the opposite side of his body, it did not damage any internal organs. 

Ultimately, Garfield’s body became riddled with infection.  The president began developing abscesses on the entry wound; he developed blood poisoning.  Even the foods Garfield was given were obscene even for 19th century standards.  For instance, Dr. Bliss believed that giving enemas would help the president digest food.  He mixed beef bouillon, warmed milk, egg yolk and opium.  He also gave him tablespoons of whiskey!!  Of course this made him sicker to the point where he was severely dehydrated.  Garfield went from a hearty two-hundred thirty pounds to one-hundred thirty.  No thinking person needs a medical degree to realize giving enemas, rich foods and alcohol to a dangerously ill patient would somehow make the patient better. 

After Garfield’s death and autopsy, Dr. Bliss was rightly criticized for the poor quality of care given to Garfield.  Bliss’ reputation was destroyed forever, and rightly so.  Upon reflection on Millard’s book I can’t help to think we as a nation were robbed of an incredibly gifted president.  As I look at this year’s candidates for president, none of whom could hold a candle to President James A. Garfield in his integrity and intelligence.  Even one-hundred thirty five years later we have been negatively impacted by Garfield’s premature death.  We were denied moral, principled leadership that Garfield would have given in a difficult transitional period for the United States.  I bow my head in grief for what we lost.


Bookish Babe       

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