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The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of…

The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder… (original 2011; edition 2011)

by Candice Millard

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Title:The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President
Authors:Candice Millard
Info:New York : Doubleday, c2011.
Collections:Read but unowned

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The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine, Madness and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (2011)


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An engrossing read into the politics, science and life of the late 19th century. What captivated me most was the rich, deep and complex characters that Millard brings to light in this book. I longed to read more even though I knew how the story ended.
A great read for more than just historical significance. ( )
  wvlibrarydude | Sep 6, 2015 |
In 1880 James Garfield, an unassuming congressman of humble origins, found himself the Republican presidential nominee and subsequently elected President, a scenario he neither anticipated nor, in fact, desired. Nevertheless, he was the apple of the public's eye for several months before being gunned down by madman Charles Guiteau. Even greater a tragedy than that act of violence was that of the misguided medical treatment Garfield received from his attending physicians for a wound that was unlikely fatal to begin with.

Having just come off of Nothing to Envy, I probably should have read something more uplifting before cracking open this book; I had no sense of just how heart-wrenching it would be. A circumstance which would have been prevented with the application of modern medicine but which wasn't due to willful ignorance or mistakes, feels much more visceral a tragedy than the thousands of years of human deaths prior to scientific knowledge. There are moments of sadness -- I choked up while reading the passage about the men pushing the President's train up the hill -- and a great many "wow, cool!" beats involving Alexander Graham Bell, Garfield's daughter Mollie, and the new-and-improved Chester Arthur, to name just a few. A worthy book about an adored, inspirational and largely forgotten man. ( )
  ryner | Aug 24, 2015 |
Everything I learned about presidential assassinations I learned from musical theater.

OK, that’s not entirely true. The details of the Lincoln assassination are so prevalent in the culture that you sort of soak those up during your life. As for JFK’s killing, well, there’s always Oliver Stone (kidding!). But as for our two lesser know victims, James Garfield and William McKinley, my knowledge base really comes from Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant, macabre take on the whole political killing business, his 1990 musical Assassins. Such are the benefits of having a college roommate with both a deep appreciation of musical theater and a skewed view of the world that resembles my own.

Thus, my prior knowledge of the Garfield assassination was pretty much limited to the fact that he was shot by a crazed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau claimed that he was only doing God’s will, but (as the song says) “God was acquitted, and Charlie committed until he could hang.” Turns out, of course, that the situation had a lot more factors going into it than can be distilled into one song (even a really good one).

Those factors come to life in The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, a detailed examination of the whole incident by Candice Millard. Millard makes a compelling case that Garfield’s eventual death – he lingered for almost three months after shot by Guiteau – was due at least as much to the medical care he received as it was to an assassin’s bullet. American doctors, who at the time were still fighting back Joseph Lister’s theories on antiseptic medicine, poked and prodded the president with numerous unsterile instruments (including their unwashed fingers), triggering infections that eventually led to his death.

While Millard spends a great amount of time (particularly in the book’s second half) on Garfield’s lingering death, the first half of the book is spent setting up not only the lives of Garfield and Guiteau up to that point, but the world in which they lived. It’s a fascinating snapshot, showing both how different the United States of the 1870s-1880s is compared to today, and how disappointingly similar the two eras are.

Both men had formative events that would not happen in the modern era. Guiteau had a long spell as a member of a utopian socialist commune in New York, becoming part of a vibrant movement in the 19th Century that knows no real analog today. Meanwhile, Garfield managed to become President of the United States without ever seeking out the office. Not only did he enter the 1880 Republic convention in Chicago without being a candidate, his role at the convention was to make the nominating speech of a fellow Ohioan, John Sherman (brother of General William Tecuhmsa Sherman). But his speech, part of a back and forth between entrenched spoils-system Republicans and reformers, was so well received (and made, in part, on the behalf of some oppressed delegates from West Virginia), that he began to receive votes during the numerous rounds of ballots. After two days of voting, he was the GOP nominee. Imagine Chris Christie getting drafted in that way today!

The politics of the day, however, would be depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the way the game is played today. While Garfield holed up on his Ohio farm (it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to actually campaign in that era – outgoing President Hayes suggested to Garfield that he sit on his porch and “look wise”), his surrogates engaged in the kind of negative campaigning we find today. His opponent, former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock (at one point, it seems like every pol in the book can be called “General”), is bashed not only on his lack of a record (printing up blank pamphlets titled “Hancock’s Achievements”), but for being a Democrat and, therefore, quite possibly a Confederate sympathizer (in spite of, you know, being a Union general and all). Undaunted, Hancock’s forces lobbed corruption allegations at Garfield, scrawling “329,” the amount of money he allegedly gained from an insider trading scandal, all over the place – even including inside the homes of prominent Republicans. The result was a comfortable Garfield victory, although the popular vote margin was on 1898 votes (out of nearly 9 million cast).

Guiteau, meanwhile, leads a life that would be familiar to anyone who deals with mental illness and the criminal justice system. There’s little doubt that Guiteau is insane. He was also a crafty con man, managing to repeatedly run up various debts and then simply slip away under cover of darkness. He could be violent, threatening his sister with an axe and tormenting his wife during their short-lived marriage. However, given that he was a pauper and his family had few assets, they couldn’t afford to have him committed. Even his purchase of the gun has a ring of Dirty Harry to it – he knows nothing of firearms, so he goes in an buys the biggest damn pistol he can find.

Even the nation’s reaction to the shooting seems familiar. In spite of popular conceptions of 19th-century America as being a collection of isolated parochial places, fact is the nation was uniting as it never had before, thanks to railroads, telegraphs, and the recent introduction of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (more of him later). Word of the shooting spread across the wires immediately after it happened. Some papers printed rushed incorrect information that Garfield had already died. Letters of support and advice poured in to the White House from all over.

Sadly, the reaction to Guiteau’s act was also something that would not look out of place today. He was locked up immediately, more for his own protection than because he was charged with anything. One of his jailors took a shot at him. Crowds gathered and called for Guiteau to be lynched (Millard even quotes newspaper editorials in favor of it). Once Garfield died and Guiteau’s legal defense hinged on insanity, it was clear that nothing other than a guilty verdict and the death penalty would do. And, of course, political points were scored, with civil service reformers linking Guiteau’s acts to the politicians most associated with the spoils system (including Chester A. Arthur, who became president when Garfield died).

All of this lends rich context to the basic story Millard tells of the President, the assassin, and incident that linked them in history forever. That being said, the book tends to drag a bit in that second half, partly because the story of Garfield’s slow death is redundant and partly because of an odd shift in focus.

Guiteau slinks to the shadows for much of the second half (at least until his trial), while Bell comes to the fore, feverishly working on an invention that would allow Garfield’s doctors to find the bullet lodged within him. While fascinating that the inventor was involved in the situation at all, there’s really no payoff. For one thing, it’s never clear what the doctors would have down had they known where the bullet was (their guesses, it turned out, were way off). Millard even mentions that many gunshot victims and Civil War vets walked around with bullets still inside them with no ill effects, so it’s an odd thing to focus on. But, more importantly, Bell’s gizmo doesn’t work in the end, so the whole tangent seems a bit pointless. In this interview, Millard explains that she came to the Garfield assassination while doing research on Bell, so maybe she was just reluctant to let that research go to waste.

Instead of leaning on Bell’s story, I wish Millard would have focused more on Guiteau and what happened to him after the shooting. As I said, he was in jail the whole time, but it doesn’t appear he was charged with anything until Garfield died. Did anybody suspect that might be a problem? And we learn that the only lawyer willing to represent Guiteau is his own brother, who practiced patent law, not criminal law. Surely they searched for someone else, the era’s version of Clarence Darrow or Gerry Spence, who would have reveled in the challenge. Did they all say “no”? Did nobody even look into the possibility? Yes, I admit, I’m a criminal procedure geek, but c’mon!

Millard also falls a little short of her title, Destiny of the Republic. Although there is some discussion of the political calculus in when to bring the vice president into the mix, there is no sense of urgency about the matter. Garfield, while dying, was fully lucid and conscious to the end. There was nothing like, say, Ronald Reagan’s unconsciousness following his assassination attempt (or an equivalent to Alexander Haig’s “I am in control here” declaration). And once Garfield was dead, Arthur stepped in and performed admirably. However traumatic Garfield’s lingering death was to the national psyche, it’s hardly a turning point in the nation’s history.

In the end, where the book really shines is in the contrast of Garfield and Guiteau, two men swept into their fatal confrontation by things beyond their control. It’s ironic that Garfield, who never really wanted to be president, is the kind of person who we should want to become president – educated and inquisitive, a voracious reader, and apparently a genuinely decent guy. And yet, even as part of a very select club of assassinated presidents, he’s pretty much forgotten these days. Of course, Guiteau is not exactly a household name, either.

Unless you’ve been to the theater.

www.jdbyrne.net ( )
  RaelWV | Aug 16, 2015 |
I never would have picked up this book if it hadn't been for my book club. The book is about James Garfield, his assassination, and the people and events surrounding it. Given that I have little interest in the subject, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would, and I am glad that I read it.

I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it moved faster. I know that good historical non-fiction books require quoting of primary source documents, but the quoting of letters and journal entries was too much for me. It got really boring and repetitive. However, everyone else in my book club seemed to think it was very intriguing and well written and they couldn't put it down. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
  activelearning | Jul 18, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 91 (next | show all)
In both of the books she has written about American presidents, Candice Millard has zeroed in on events that other historians largely overlook. Her first book, “The River of Doubt,” followed Theodore Roosevelt’s strenuous efforts to regain his confidence after his failed 1912 third-party bid for re-election and described his near-disastrous journey down the Amazon tributary of the title. The details of this trip were hardly unknown, but they were easily overshadowed by other aspects of Roosevelt’s hugely eventful life. Ms. Millard turned a relative footnote into a newly mesmerizing story.

Now she has chosen an even more neglected and fascinating subject: the 1881 assassination attempt on President James A. Garfield and the dreadfully misguided medical efforts to save his life. Had it not been for this botched treatment, Ms. Millard contends, Garfield would have been one more Civil War veteran walking around with a bullet lodged inside him. Had he survived to serve more than 200 days in office, he might have been much more familiar than he is to many students of White House history.

“Destiny of the Republic,” which takes its title from a fateful speech given by Garfield at the 1880 Republican National Convention, has a much bigger scope than the events surrounding Garfield’s slow, lingering death. It is the haunting tale of how a man who never meant to seek the presidency found himself swept into the White House. It rediscovers Garfield’s more surprising accomplishments. He was, among other things, a teenage worker on the Erie and Ohio canals, a brigadier general and a scholar who devised an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem at some point during the 17 years he spent in Congress.

Garfield’s transformative effect on the contentious 1880 Republican convention put an end to all that. (Kenneth D. Ackerman’s “Dark Horse” gives a full account of the convention.) At an exhausting point when more than 30 ballots had been cast, Garfield rose to speak out against the chaotic “human ocean in tempest” he was witnessing. He injected a voice of reason. “I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man,” he said. “But I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured.”

Delegates began unexpectedly throwing their votes to Garfield. He had not been a presidential candidate; now suddenly he was the Republican nominee. When he and his family were swept into the White House, Garfield wrote: “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?”

Garfield particularly bristled at the calling hours a president then traditionally kept. During this time he met members of the public, many of them office seekers. He quickly noticed a particularly obnoxious visitor: Charles Guiteau, whose pestering was so extreme that Garfield cited him as an “illustration of unparalleled audacity and impudence.” The grandiose and frankly creepy Guiteau wrote so many letters that he became enough of a nuisance to be noticed by other members of the Garfield administration and family. A former lawyer and theologist who earned himself the nickname “Charles Gitout,” he met Garfield on numerous occasions before deciding to shoot him.

Guiteau, whose story has also been much overlooked, made no secret of his plotting. In a letter explaining his plans to the American people, he reasoned: “It will be no worse for Mrs. Garfield, to part with her husband this way, than by natural death. He is liable to go at any time any way.” He scouted jails, deciding where he wanted to be incarcerated. He left instructions (“please order out your troops”) for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who would be marshalling troops for Guiteau. They protected the assassin from being killed by a mob before he could go to trial.

“Destiny of the Republic” pursues many threads at first, including the political spoils system exploited by Senator Roscoe Conkling (who forced Chester A. Arthur on Garfield as a vice president); Alexander Graham Bell’s experiments with induction balance; and Joseph Lister’s much-mocked claims that antisepsis was crucial in warding off infection. And then midway through the book these elements converge in Ms. Millard’s gripping account of Guiteau’s attack. After Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac train station on July 2, 1881, doctors egregiously probed Garfield with hands and instruments, none sterilized. The president’s fever, vomiting and signs of infection were taken as evidence that his body was trying to heal.

The medics explored the wrong side of Garfield’s torso — and under the orders of the senior presiding doctor, D. Willard Bliss, only the wrong side — in efforts to find and remove the foreign body. In one of the many stunning moments that Ms. Millard describes, Bell was allowed to use his method of metal detection only on the bullet-free side of the president and was baffled by the faint, inconclusive noises that his test produced. It would be discovered, too late, that the sounds had come from metal bedsprings in the mattress beneath Garfield.

“His ultimate place in history will be far less exalted than that which he now holds in popular estimation,” The New York Times wrote after Garfield died. This book rebuts that claim. It restores Garfield’s eloquent voice, his great bravery and his strong-willed if not particularly presidential nature. Ms. Millard shows the Garfield legacy to be much more important than most of her readers knew it to be.
added by PLReader | editNY Times, JANET MASLIN (Sep 11, 2011)

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For my parents, Lawrence and Constance Millard, on their fiftieth wedding anniversary
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(Prologue) Crossing the Long Island Sound in dense fog just before midnight on the night of June 11, 1880, the passengers and crew of the steamship Stonington found themselves wrapped in impenetrable blackness.
Even severed as it was from the rest of the body, the hand was majestic.
As cries of "Catch him!" echoed through the train station, Guiteau's face "blanched like that of a corpse," the Venezuelan chargé d'affaires, Camacho, would remember.
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Book description
Prologue: Chosen
Part One:Promise
The scientific spirit -- Providence -- A light in the wilderness -- God’s minuteman -- Bleak mountain
Part Two: War
Hand and soul -- Real Brutuses and Bolingbrokes -- Brains, flesh, and blood -- Casus belli -- The dark dreams of presidents -- "A desperate deed"
Part Three: Fear
"Thank God it is all over" -- "It’s true" -- All evil consequences -- Blood-guilty -- "The whole nation kin"
Part Four: Tortured for the Republic
Neither death nor life -- One nation -- "Keep heart" -- On a mountaintop, alone -- Terror, hope, and despair -- After all -- All the angels of the universe
Epilogue: Forever and Forever more
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385526261, Hardcover)

A Letter from Author Candice Millard

At the heart of Destiny of the Republic is the story of the assassination of President James Garfield. What made me want to write this book, however, was not what I knew about President Garfield—that he had been shot by a deranged man in the summer of 1881—but all that I did not.

In everything I read, I am always looking for the thread of an idea, something that surprises me, and leaves me wanting to know more. To me, that’s the best part of being a writer—following an idea to see where it leads. Most of the time, after doing a little research, I quickly come to a dead end. One day four years ago, however, I found much more than I had ever expected.

While reading a biography of Alexander Graham Bell, I learned that Bell had tried to help save Garfield’s life after the President was shot. I wondered why a man as famous and powerful as Bell, who had invented the telephone just five years earlier, would abandon everything he was working on, put his life on hold, to help any man, even a President. The only way to answer that question, I realized, was to understand exactly what Bell had invented, and, more than that, to find out what kind of man Garfield had been.

After the assassination attempt, Bell devoted himself night and day to inventing something called an induction balance, a type of metal detector, to locate the bullet lodged in the President’s body. The induction balance that Bell used for the final time on Garfield is on display in the National Museum of American History, on the National Mall. What most people don’t know, however, is that the museum also has all of the versions of Bell’s induction balance, in various shapes and sizes, with hanging wires and unfinished edges, that he created while trying to perfect his invention. As I held these fragile instruments in my gloved hands, carefully examining their intricate workings, I could almost see Bell’s mind working, and his heart racing, as the President drew closer and closer to death.

Although, in the end, I would spend three years working on this book, it took only a few days of research to realize what Bell must have known—that President Garfield was not only a tragic figure, but one of the most extraordinary men ever elected President of the United States. A passionate abolitionist, Garfield was not only hailed a hero in the Civil War, but was a fierce champion of the rights of freed slaves. At the same time, he was a supremely gifted scholar who had become a university president at just 26 years of age, and, while in Congress, wrote an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

With each diary entry and letter I read, each research trip I took, Garfield came more clearly and vividly to life. It was not until I visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., however, that I began to understand the extent of the suffering that Garfield, and the nation with him, had endured. In its archives, in a large metal cabinet with long, deep drawers, the museum keeps the remains of two presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau, the man who shot Garfield. In the same cabinet, in a drawer just below Guiteau’s, lies a six-inch section of Garfield’s spine, a red pin inserted through a hole in the knobby, yellowed bone to show the path of Guiteau’s bullet. It is impossible to look at this heartbreaking collection without being struck by the fact that this story, now hardly remembered, was once a tragedy so wrenching that it transfixed and terrified an entire nation.

This book is my attempt to step back in time, to understand these men and this moment in history, and to tell a story that should never have been forgotten.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:30 -0400)

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A narrative account of the twentieth president's political career offers insight into his background as a scholar and Civil War hero, his battles against the corrupt establishment, and Alexander Graham Bell's failed attempt to save him from an assassin's bullet.… (more)

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