Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Becoming a Nation

This past weekend I finished reading an interesting and well-written book called "Destiny of the Republic: A tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President."

The book was written by Candice Millard, the author of a wonderful book called "River of Doubt" - an incredible account of Theodore Roosevelt's journey through an unmapped river in Brazil - and a book that is one of my favorites.

In "Destiny of the Republic" (which was published in 2011), Millard describes the life and tragic events surrounding the brief presidency and assassination of James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States.

It is mostly a sad and depressing tale - of mental illness (by Garfield's attacker) and prideful physicians (Garfield's attending physicians refused to believe in sterilization of medical equipment or that their hands could spread germs).

In reading the book last week, I was struck by a few thoughts:

One thought (that was not new to me last week -- but one that has been a challenge for me during my adult life) is how attributing events to "Providence" or "God" can be a tricky thing.

Garfield, I learned from the book, had left home at the age of sixteen to work on the Ohio and Erie Canal. One night he fell into the canal and was saved from drowning by grabbing a rope that should have fallen into the water when he grabbed it. At that moment he felt like his life was worth living and headed for home. He eventually went to and excelled at college, became a college professor, then president of his college, then a General in the Civil War, then an Ohio representative to the U.S. Congress.

Sadly, Garfield's assassin also felt that he was led by God, that he was providentially saved from a disaster (also on the water) and in his warped thinking, believed that it was God's will that he kill Garfield.

A second point that was interesting to observe was that Millard makes a point about Garfield's death that Jay Winik made about Lincoln's death (that had occurred 16 years before). Winik, in his book "April, 1865" (which I blogged about a few weeks ago) explained that in the fractious land, Lincoln's death helped make the United States become a nation.  Millard sees Garfield's death as accomplishing a similar purpose.

She explains,

"Garfield's long illness and painful death brought the country together in a way that, even the day before the assassination attempt, had seemed to most Americans impossible. 'Garfield does not belong to the north alone,' read a letter that was written by a southerner to Lucretia (Garfield) soon after the shooting, and printed in papers across the country. 'From this common vigil and prayer and sympathy in the travail of this hour there shall be a new birth of the Nation.' That prediction was realized the day Garfield's death was announced, when his countrymen mourned not as northerners or southerners, but as Americans. 'This morning from the depth of their grief-stricken hearts all Americans can and will thank God that there is no North, no South, no East, no West,' a minister said from his pulpit. 'Bound together in one common sorrow, binding in its vastness, we are one and indissoluble.' (pg. 288) 


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