My Lenten devotional reading this season has been Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President.
It may be difficult for some to see the murder of President James A. Garfield as the stuff of spiritual assuagement, and most in my family think I spend all my time reading about dead white men anyway.
But this particular book is not your average homage to Y chromosomal Caucasians. It was number five on The New York Times bestseller list and was named a best book of the year by The New York Times, Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, The Kansas City Star, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Destiny of the Republic won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, the PEN Center USA award for Research Nonfiction, the One Book-One Lincoln Award, the Ohioana Award, and the Kansas Notable Book Award.
But in addition to being a highly readable true-crime and history narrative, the book also forces readers to confront profound theological questions. Questions like: what is God trying to pull?
History is full of ironies and tragedies that make you wonder if God is even paying attention. The violent removal of Garfield in 1881, four months into his first term, is one of those events.
One of the ironies is that Garfield is generally unknown to us. If he had been allowed to realize his potential, he might have joined Lincoln as one of the towering U.S. leaders of the 19th century.
Even a cursory reading of Garfield’s biography suggests God had prepared him for great things. Born in poverty, Garfield quickly broke out of his bonds. His embrace of both faith and science seems anomalous by 19th century standards. A born again Disciples of Christ minister, he was not only undaunted by Darwin but one of Darwin’s champions. Garfield openly declared that the world has existed “millions of years.” He expressed astonishment “at the ignorance of the masses on these subjects … the battle of evidences must now be fought on the field of the natural sciences.”
Garfield also developed a proof of the Pythagorean theorem, which makes him a rarity among Disciples of Christ ministers and unique among presidents of the United States.
As a student at Hiram College in Ohio, he started out as a janitor to pay his tuition and was hired as a teacher the following year. He specialized in languages, and courted his future wife Lucretia, also a student at Hiram, by teaching her Greek.
When the Civil War began, Garfield rose to the rank of major general before leaving the army to enter Congress as a Republican. (“I have enough generals,” Lincoln reportedly told him. “I need more support in Congress.”)
As a politician, Garfield was an aggressive abolitionist. When the war was over, he insisted that emancipated slaves be given the same rights as other Americans and his public rallies included both black and white admirers.
Garfield’s attitudes toward race were rare in 1881, and there were few others on the scene to echo his views.
“As president he demanded for black men nothing less that what they wanted most desperately for themselves – complete and unconditional equality, born not of regret but respect,” Millard writes. “‘You were not made free merely to be allowed to vote, but in order to enjoy an equality of opportunity in the race of life,’ Garfield had told a delegation of 250 black men just before he was elected president. ‘Permit no man to praise you because you are black, nor wrong you because you are black, Let it be known that you are ready and willing to work out your own material salvation by your own energy, your own worth, your own labor.’”
Garfield never aspired to the presidency (“not even for a minute,” he avowed) but emerged as the Republican nominee as a compromise candidate after 36 ballots. He was stunned by this unexpected turn of events, which he knew would change his life forever.
But his unexpected ascendancy was good news for many because he stood for things the country needed: equal social, political and economic opportunity for all the races, improved relations with the south following a harsh reconstruction, reform of the corrupt civil service spoils system, and universal education be funded by the federal government. Garfield also supported strengthening the Navy and expanding American influence abroad.
It’s hard to look back on James Garfield without thinking of him as God’s chosen prophet to bring truth, justice, and righteousness to the land. (Well, maybe his tendency toward manifest destiny was not on the best side of history, but no prophet is perfect.)
One can imagine Garfield’s Disciples pastor assuring him that God had made him president “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)
But if God had great purposes in mind for Garfield, it’s hard to understand what happened next. One of the thousands of office seekers who descended on the White House after Garfield’s inauguration was Charles J. Guiteau. After 135 years, it’s difficult to diagnose Guiteau’s particular form of mental illness except to acknowledge the conclusion of his contemporaries that he was insane.
Guiteau fancied himself a lawyer, though he was never successful at litigation, and a theologian, though his written precepts were lifted wholesale from other sources. He lived for five years in the Oneida Colony in Central New York State, where the members practiced free love. He was singularly unsuccessful in his erotic pursuits as women in the colony quickly dubbed him Charles “Git-Out.”
For most of his life, Guiteau survived by borrowing money he never intended to repay, and by disappearing from boarding houses the night before the rent was due. Despite a life of chronic failure, Guiteau believed God was planning great things for him.
In Destiny, Millard describes an event Guiteau regarded as miraculous. On the night of June 11, 1880, Guiteau was a passenger on the steamship Stonington when it collided with the steamer Narragansett. Nearly 30 persons burned to death or drowned. Guiteau believed his survival was more than good luck.
He “felt certain that he had not been spared, but rather selected – chosen by God for a task of tremendous importance,” Millard writes. “Disappearing into the crowd, he dedicated himself to what he now saw clearly as the divine mission before him.”
At first Guiteau thought his mission was to help Republican candidate Garfield get elected, presuming the grateful president-elect would appoint him counsel to Paris. The deluded Guiteau, who in the days before Secret Service security could strike up conversations with any high ranking politician, confronted and pestered Secretary of State James G. Blaine and Vice President Chester A. Arthur. He interpreted their distant but polite responses as signs of genuine friendship. Finally Blaine lost his temper with the persistent Guiteau and told him that he would never get the appointment, and he didn’t want to talk with him again.
Shocked and disappointed, Guiteau reached the irrational conclusion that he would please the public and Vice President Arthur if he killed Garfield. On July 2, 1881, he pursued the president to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington and shot the president in the back.
Garfield was not immediately killed by the attack. He lived on for eleven weeks, first rallying then slowly dying in agony. But his presidency ceased to function on the day he was shot.
A notable irony of the assassination attempt was that the shots were not fatal. The bullet missed vital arteries and organs, and if the President had been left alone he could have survived. In the end, the real assassins were germs, and the experienced doctors who didn’t believe in them.
Millard writes, “As the president lay on the train station floor, one of the most germ infested environments imaginable, (Doctor Smith Townsend, the District of Columbia health officer) inserted an unsterilized finger into the wound in his back, causing a small hemorrhage and almost certainly introducing an infection that was far more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet.”
Ha ha. Very funny. What is God up to?
First, God raises up a person of faith and intellect whose ideas and leadership skills far surpass the average people around him.
Second, God places this unusual person in a caldron of distress, a nation torn by post-war and post-reconstruction woes where racism and corruption are rampant.
Third, hopes soar that God has raised up a leader with the strength to subdue the forces of ignorance and lead God’s people along paths of righteousness and justice.
Fourth, God seems to turn away as the leader is struck down by madness and the ignorance of the well-intending people.
And, fifth, James A. Garfield disappears from history, remembered primarily for his heroic frame, his noble brow, and the bizarre circumstances of his premature death.
Garfield’s story is perfect for Lenten meditation. He was a believer who strove to serve God and sought to use God’s gifts to be a harbinger of justice. He was an extraordinary gift to his fellow citizens and to the friends and family who loved him. Why didn’t God take full advantage of this amazing resource? Where was God when Garfield was shot by an insane man and tortured by well-meaning physicians for the last three months of his life?
These are appropriate issues for Lenten reflection because this is, after all, a season of searching, penitence, and sacrifice.
And James Garfield was by no means unique. All one has to do is stay alert on social media to detect the inexplicable suffering of many of God’s children.
Young couples celebrate joyous pregnancies and thank God for the gift of life; but the child is born prematurely or with disabilities and dies within months.
Parents watch with loving fulfillment as their children grow into young adults; but one child dies in a head-on collision, or is lost in a cataclysmic illness.
Adults have reason to thank God for lifelong careers, many of which feel like a calling to service; but the economy collapses, jobs are eliminated, and dismissed workers are unexpectedly idle and bereft.
Persons who never think to thank God for good health discover they have cancer or heart disease and a future that is suddenly clouded.
Even the most devout will have to wonder what God is up to. C. S. Lewis, who watched his cancer-stricken wife go through cycles of remission and renewed suffering, said he came to think of God as a callous vivisectionist.
Is God messing with us? Or are we confused about what we should expect from God? Woody Allen, the brilliant but flawed rabbinic philosopher, put it this way: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
Lent is an appropriate time to ponder the mysteries of God, and to reflect on then reality that God’s plans and our plans are frequently out of sync.
James Garfield’s contemporaries had high expectations for him, and they assumed God did, too. But Garfield’s actual fate devolved into a mystery that perplexes us, just like the mysteries of our daily lives.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President, has been devotional reading for me because it immerses me in these mysteries. It also requires me to remember that my feeble human brain will never penetrate the enigma of God, and that is not a bad thing.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware put it this way: “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
Certainly there are copious mysteries in the story of Garfield and his contemporaries, and abundant causes for wonder.
But these are not our mysteries to solve. In the end, it seems best to focus our Lenten reflections on God’s promise that the season climaxes in Christ’s ultimate victory over death.
And to celebrate that how this happens is an eternally marvelous mystery.