Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

December 22, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back.

But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what hap­pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur­moil. The unhinged assassin’s half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. As his con­dition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet.

Meticulously researched, epic in scope, and pulsating with an intimate human focus and high-velocity narrative drive, The Destiny of the Republic will stand alongside The Devil in the White City and The Professor and the Madman as a classic of narrative history.

Liked:

  • I wasn’t actually interested in President Garfield before reading this book, but was drawn to it by the great title. Fortunately, the content did not disappoint, and I think I learned a lot from Millard’s work.
  • Garfield sounded like a pretty amazing individual, not so much for the “rising from poverty” aspect of his story (frankly, lots of folks did that back then and do that now) as for his intellectual capabilities. All the languages he mastered, becoming president of a university at the age of 26, etc. I can’t see a guy like that becoming president in this day and age.
  • I enjoyed reading about the strong bond between Garfield and his wife Lucretia. He was clearly devoted to her and worried about her during her illness, and of course she couldn’t wait to be by his side after learning of the assassination attempt. I particularly liked learning that Lucretia used stationery with a black (mourning) border from the time of her husband’s death until her own. It showed that her love for him never flagged.
  • The insight into Charles Guiteau (the assassin) was absolutely fascinating. He sounded like an utter leech right from the beginning, borrowing money from people he barely knew, skipping out on his boarding house debts, refusing to pay train fare, etc. How did someone like that even survive? It made me wish people had refused him money so he would have starved to death before carrying out his evil plan.
  • The look at early 19th-century medicine was stomach-turning, to say the least. It’s hard to believe that cleanliness and hygiene counted for so very little back then and that doctors kept dried blood and pus from previous surgeries on their lab coats as “evidence” of their experience and competence. Wow.
  • Unfortunately, I thought Guiteau had a bit of a point when, during his trial, he claimed that his bullet didn’t kill Garfield; the unclean practices and incompetence of the president’s doctors did. He was right. He still deserved to hang, of course, but those doctors should have been held accountable in some way.

Disliked:

  • All the stuff about Alexander Graham Bell felt out of place in this book. I realize that Bell played a huge part in trying to identify the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body, but it wasn’t worth reading so much about his life (his booth at the World’s Fair, his history of teaching the deaf, his marriage). Save that stuff for a different book.
  • Guiteau was clearly deranged, and his actions showed it. But I wish the author had delved more into the possible causes of his mental state. Was it hereditary, as his lawyer tried to argue at the trial? Were some of his problems the result of a Chronic migraine condition? Or was he just a religious zealot? I wanted to hear some more theories!
  • Reading about the dirty dealings and crooked politicians of Garfield’s time showed me that nothing has really changed in that arena even after 130 years.

Rating

I found Destiny of the Republic to be a highly engrossing and fascinating read — particularly for someone who has never before delved into the subject of Garfield’s assassination. I’m sure there are other, more scholarly works out there, but Candice Millard’s book was just right for me. It was neither too long nor too academic, but it was still well researched and well presented. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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