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Garfield: America's most obscure president may also have been one of its best

Biographer Candice Millard talks about the courageous, independent, largely forgotten US president – James Garfield – whose term was cut short by an assassin's bullet.

By Randy Dotinga / August 31, 2012

Millard says that when she began to learn about Garfield she was "blown away by how brilliant he was and the huge heart he had."

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 A while ago, I stumbled upon a photograph of President James Garfield and his young daughter Mollie. (You can see it here.) Even though it was taken in the 19th century, a time when just about everyone looked stern in front of a camera – maybe because exposures lasted forever – Garfield appears to be positively delighted.

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Are his eyes filled with humor because he's about to tell a joke? Is he just ecstatic to be spending time with his daughter, who's giving the evil eye to someone outside the shot? Or is that grin hidden under his beard just a sign that he's a jolly guy?

Whatever the case, the photo hints that Garfield was a remarkable man. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, one of last year's top bestsellers, confirms it.

"Destiny of the Republic," which our reviewer Erik Spanberg  wrote brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period," is now out in paperback. I contacted author Candice Millard, who previously wrote the bestselling "River of Doubt" about Theodore Roosevelt's treacherous African trip, to ask about the reaction to the book and what she found when she looked into the fascinating life of this most obscure of presidents.

Q: How did you come across the little-known story of President Garfield?

A: I came in to this book without an interest in Garfield. I didn't know anything about him other than he'd been assassinated.

I was actually interested in Alexander Graham Bell and looking at a book with a lot of science in it. I stumbled upon the story of him trying to find the bullet in Garfield.

I wondered why Bell would do this. He's young, he just invented the telephone a few years ago, and he abandons everything he's doing to work night and day on an invention. I start researching Garfield, and I'm blown away by how brilliant he was and the huge heart he had.

It took me three years to work on the book, two years of doing research, and I was far into it by the time I wrote his death scene. I called my husband in tears.

I didn't want to write it. That's ridiculous: It's been 130 years since he died. But I felt like I knew him. I cared about him, and I admired him, and I was surprised by all of that.

Q: Four presidents have been assassinated, but we remember just two: Lincoln and Kennedy. Why have we forgotten Garfield?

A: We forget because it's been so long since his assassination, and he was in office for such a short time.

It was interesting to me in the National Museum of Natural History they have a little alcove about presidential assassinations. Fortunately for Garfield he's right across from Kennedy. But when I was there one day, I'd watch people come in, and they'd look at Kennedy and Lincoln and leave. They'd never turn around to see anything.

We forget, and we don't know the tremendous tragedy this was for the country at this time.

Q: What made him unique as a leader?

A: He was trusted, and he's really the first president since the Civil War to be accepted by the whole country as its leader. The assassination was shocking and devastating.

Q: He was a major advocate for black people, wasn't he?

A: From a very young age, his religion was the Disciples of Christ, and they were fierce abolitionists. He cried when John Brown was hanged, hid a runaway slave, and was a staunch fighter in the Civil War and a hero in the Union Army.

For him, it was mostly about abolition, and he was instrumental in bringing about rights for freed slaves after the Civil War, including suffrage.

During his inaugural, freed slaves were openly weeping in the crowd. A party of 600 black men formed after his assassination to lynch the assassin, Charles Guiteau.

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