I never fail to be amazed at the tweaks in history that one discovers only by reading a second or third book. Textbooks on history are dreadful, but a biography adds depth and humanity to numbers and reasons. I read for pleasure, and do not consider myself an egghead. But I’ve made some amazing discoveries.
Upon reading a critique of John Tyler’s brief and unspectacular presidency, I discovered that, while his legislative achievements were minimal, his personal life was fascinating. He came into office with an ailing wife and six children, some of them grown. After his wife’s death, while he was still in office, he met a young woman, courted her and married her. She became a prototype first lady, a loving wife and mother of seven of her own children, all the while coping with step-children, some of whom were her age and older. Their marriage lasted to Tyler’s death and proved a tender love story.
Recently I found a book describing James Garfield’s murder. The collision of events at that particular time is a story unto itself. With the telephone, just coming into common use, and the telegraph the news traveled more quickly than it had when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
But more than news, the problem of modern medicine was a big factor in Garfield’s death. Antiseptic care of patients, especially those with open wounds, was not universally accepted. American doctors, particularly, disdained the idea. Garfield’s wounds were probed with him lying on the floor of Washington’s train depot. The attendants wore no rubber gloves or other protection for their patient. They probed with unsanitary items, and probably, in the end, hastened his demise. Alexander Graham Bell rushed his testing of a metal detection instrument in order to better understand where the bullet was lodged. But alas, his findings came too late to keep the president alive to heal.
Maybe a more important finding in that reading was the discovery of Garfield’s character. He was gentle, kindly, forthright and deeply religious. He listened to all those who spoke to him and at all times maintained his humanity. He was the kind of man any one of us would want to be our mayor, governor or president, without regard to party. His wisdom, vision and graciousness did not live long after his death. At the time of his nomination, stalwart partisans insisted he couldn’t be trusted – meaning he couldn’t be trusted to toe the party line – so the vice president was chosen to satisfy the party seniors who wanted to reap the benefits of incumbency.
I’m currently in the process of reading a biography of William McKinley, and was very much surprised to read a description of him as a simple, fair and scrupulously honest man. A home-loving Ohioan, he was considerate to all, even to those who disagreed with him. In many ways he was like Harry Truman. But the men around him, recently successful and drunk with the power, were full of the idea that profit was the only end, and workers were a commodity.
Grover Cleveland is on my list, given his considerable Buffalo background. And there are many lesser characters challenging the imagination and bringing history into the realm of fascination. So, while I have one foot in the current political scene, my heart follows ancient and dusty tomes telling the secrets of bygone activity.