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The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of…

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

by Candice Millard

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1,359995,652 (4.29)233
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Read this one for my library non-fiction reading group. I always enjoy learning something new and this book was no disappointment. Learned quite a bit about President James Garfield, his presidency, the assassination and horrors of medicine during this time period. Alexander Graham Bell's attempts to help with the presidents medical care using an invention he was developing. Germs play a crucial role in the presidents death. The medical community of the time ignored germs as non existent because it was not something they could physically see. Hard to believe Garfield lasted 79 days before finally passing away. ( )
  yvonne.sevignykaiser | Apr 2, 2016 |
When I mentioned this title to a friend of mine her automatic response was “Which president? Lincoln or Kennedy?” And while those may be the most well known, lets not forget the two other assassinated US presidents, McKinley and Garfield. And this one is about Garfield, the president who had great things in mind but would be shot down a mere 4 months into his presidency. But it wouldn't be the gunshot wound that would kill him but the medical care proceeding it. In a time before sterilization (at least in the US, it was already used in Europe) and little known or cared about germs, infection was still a major cause of death in the United States and sadly the 20th president was not immune to such issues.

A short 16 years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, the United States would still be in turmoil and divided racially and politically and for the first time in decade, both the south and north would agree on a president: James Garfield. This is such a well researched and well told story that I had trouble putting it down. Little is known or remembered about this president due to his short time in office but that does not mean he didn't make an impact. A country would come together and rally for the dying president.

This story goes into the life of Garfield, his crazy assassin (and his trial), and those around him (family, friends, co-workers, foes). The beginning was fairly dry for me as it was a lot of politics – although it's to be expected being about you know...a political president. But I was amazed at all I learned about James Garfield, and what an extraordinary man he was. A recommended book for those that enjoy American history. ( )
  UberButter | Feb 9, 2016 |
A Tale of Medicine, Madness and the Murder of a President
This subtitle says it all.
I must say that I appreciated reliving history and being given an understanding
of the "state" of medicine at this time.
I was a little squeamish about fingers inserted into wounds but tracing the president as he faced his last days was worth the read.
The madness of Charles Cuiteau was eerie
and all in all I enjoyed Millard's rendition of an important historical event ( )
  pennsylady | Jan 26, 2016 |
Audiobook narrated by Paul Michael

A few short months into his presidency, James A Garfield was shot at close range by a delusional office-seeker named Charles Guiteau. The two bullet wounds were serious but they didn’t kill Garfield. Rather, his physicians killed him by repeatedly introducing infectious agents into the wound.

Gripping, fascinating, and informative, Millard’s novel clearly shows that she is on a par with Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) and Erik Larsen (Devil in the White City) when it comes to writing history that captures the reader with the pace of a thriller.

The characters all come to life, with their strengths, and weaknesses, displayed for the reader to interpret. Millard also puts the reader right in the middle of the era – I was nearly as uncomfortable as the residents of Washington DC must have been that sweltering summer. The sights, sounds and smells of the sick room, the jails, the train station, and the streets of the city were clearly depicted.

I had never paid much attention to Garfield’s presidency… it lasted only 6 months; he was inaugurated on March 4, 1881, shot on July 2, and died on Sept 19. But his short term, and the manner in which he died, resulted in several major changes – the institution of a professional Civil Service (vs the patronage system widely in place at the time of Garfield’s inauguration) and the move to adopt Joseph Lister’s antisepsis techniques among them. (Full disclosure: I work for surgeons and I could not help yelling at the CD player “Oh, My God … Wash your hands!”)

I highly recommend this work.

Paul Michael does a superb job narrating the audio version of this book. He has great pacing, and skill as a voice artist to differentiate the many male characters (and I loved his subtle Scottish brogue for Alexander Graham Bell).
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
Well not know a thing about President Garfield I absolutely loves this book. It covered the full history of Garfield and added in other character biographies of people who affected his life. What a great man he was with a fascinating story. ( )
  JWarrenBenton | Jan 4, 2016 |
Well not know a thing about President Garfield I absolutely loves this book. It covered the full history of Garfield and added in other character biographies of people who affected his life. What a great man he was with a fascinating story. ( )
  JWarrenBenton | Jan 4, 2016 |
A fine nonfiction book. Weaves together multiple stories. The president. The assassin. The wife. The background. Alexander Graham Bell and his inventions. Medicine. Especially avoiding infections. A man who might've been a good president had he been given the chance. I really liked this book. The kind of book I can imagine writing. Listened on audible. ( )
  idiotgirl | Dec 25, 2015 |
Engrossing biography which reads like a novel. Millard weaves the historic period, Guiteaus's mental illness and Garfield's personal biography into a gripping expose on the times and man. ( )
  Bibliofemmes | Dec 5, 2015 |
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 |
James Abram Garfield was the twentieth president of the United States. Not very well known or well remembered in light of very renowned presidents shortly before and after him, his story is non-the-less extremely fascinating. A humble man, coming from very impoverished beginnings, he was a most reluctant president. Bullied into accepting the presidential nomination, he was duly elected and served only a short time before meeting with an assassin’s bullet.

But, this book is not just the story of an assassinated president and that fact is what was most appealing. Ms. Millard manages to give the reader a taste of the late 1800’s. A time of radical change in politics, technology and medicine. Alexander Graham Bell had introduced the telephone, and out of need, the metal detector to determine where the bullet resided in Garfield’s body. Dr. Lister had introduced the idea of “antisepsis” for sterilizing wounds and operating environments. Doctors of the time found the concept of unseen organisms quite absurd and Dr. Lister was ridiculed. Unfortunately, that ridicule cost Garfield his life. The reader is also given a credible glimpse into the madness of his assassin, Charles Guiteau, quite a fascinating story in and of itself.

I enjoy books that have an interesting “back story”, the action that goes on behind the actual purpose of the book. In some instances I find that I become so intrigued with the background that I lose interest in the subject of the book. No so in this case. Yes, this is a biography but it is also a story of an interesting time in history. Enjoyable because it reads like a novel but Ms. Candice backed up her writing with extensive endnotes and documentation. My only complaint … it’s pulled a thread … and now I need to find an interesting biography of Bell.
( )
  ChristineEllei | Jul 14, 2015 |
Very interesting insight into a part of American history I knew nothing about. We could use a president like Garfield today! The author wove together the stories of Garfield, his assassin, and the stubborness of the American medical establishment toward sterile processes as if it were a novel. I thought the inclusion of Alexander Graham Bell was not quite as successful, but it did point out how the late 19th century was on the cusp of immense technological changes that are still echoing today. I love that authors are presenting history in books that are easy to read and keep your attention. ( )
  TerriBooks | May 14, 2015 |
The book provides a very detailed account of assassination of president James Garfield, including combination of events that led to it and futile attempts to save that very likable president. It's makes for a very interesting read most of the times, it just slowed down after Garfield shooting. ( )
  everfresh1 | Apr 27, 2015 |
Four American presidents have died at the hands of assassins, but all the books seem to be written about just two of them, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Scores of books have been written about these tragic events, and more continue to be published each year. But when is the last time you've seen a book about the assassination of William F. McKinley?

Thanks to Candice Millard, one of our very best writers to focus on American history for a general audience, we have the 2011 book "Destiny of the Republic" about the murder of James Garfield. Her book is so good, perhaps we won't need 50 or 100 more books on the same subject.

Charles Guiteau, thoroughly mad, pulled the trigger and ultimately died for his crime, yet it was Garfeld's doctors, not Guiteau, who actually killed the president, Millard writes. The bullet wound was serious enough for that day (1881), but it was hardly fatal. It had missed all vital organs, and Garfield could have survived and lived a long life if the bullet had simply been ignored. Plenty of Civil War veterans were walking around with similar bullets in similar places in their bodies. But this was the president of the United States, and the doctors determined the bullet must come out. Cleaning their hands and instruments before poking around in his body was never a priority, however.

In 1881, the existence of bacteria remained a controversial idea in the medical world. A man with the unlikely name of Dr. Doctor Bliss appointed himself head of the medical team and, over a period of several weeks repeatedly assaulted Garfield's body, creating a bacteria-filled cavity to where he believed the bullet must surely rest. Later an autopsy found the bullet on the other side of Garfield's body. The infection killed the president.

The inventor Alexander Graham Bell plays a key role in Millard's story. Bell worked long hours to perfect his induction balance machine capable of finding a bullet in a body. Despite technical problems, the device would have worked, but Dr. Bliss would allow Bell to test only the side of Garfield's body where he was convinced the bullet was located, not the side where it actually was.

The president's slow death accomplished something other than inspiring Bell's invention. It united the country more than anything that had happened since the Civil War. North and South, blacks and whites ... everyone loved James Garfield.

The long dying also gave Chester Arthur, Garfield's vice president, time to mature to the point he was ready for the presidency when it finally fell to him. As vice president, Arthur had been Roscoe Conkling's man, not Garfield's. Conkling favored the spoils system, handing out government jobs on the basis of connections rather than merit. Arthur had never gotten a job on the basis of merit in his life and doubted his ability to do just about anything, let alone the presidency. Millard tells how he rose to the task, thanks to advice from a woman he didn't even know.

Like Millard's previous book, "The River of Doubt," about Theodore Roosevelt's nearly-fatal South American adventure, "Destiny of the Republic" makes compulsive reading. More books have been written about the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, but few of those books have been the equal of this one. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Mar 31, 2015 |
Interesting ( )
  ibkennedy | Feb 19, 2015 |
This is a very interesting work of narrative non-fiction about a president that is overlooked in the history books. No wonder, he was only president for a matter of months before he was assassinated. The author does a good job of letting the reader come to know the extraordinary man, James Garfield, who became president, and giving us the historical context in which he was elected. The election process back in 1880 was much more exciting than it is today, and the idea that a person who was unknown at the start of the Republican convention could be nominated and then win the election is unthinkable today. The author also managed to turn the assassin into a sympathetic character. I honestly felt sorry for him when he was on his way to the gallows. When an author can turn a villain into a sympathetic character in a story that brings tension to the tale and keeps the reader reading. ( )
1 vote benitastrnad | Sep 16, 2014 |
Chester Arthur, Garfield's Vice President, was very unpopular. When people became worried that Garfield would die, a rumor was started that Arthur was Canadian and could not be President. A fascinating book about a President I knew almost nothing about. ( )
1 vote kwbridge | Sep 6, 2014 |
I would like to have known James Garfield. He sounds like a marvelous human being, statesman, father, and husband. Ms. Millard's book is non-fiction that reads like a well-constructed novel. In fact, it is the combination of fascinating peripheral events occurring simultaneously in time with the details of President Garfield's election and death which make this book so very interesting. The reader gets a glimpse into the mind of this gentle intellectual man as well as into the sociopolitical and scientific advances of the times. Excellent read! ( )
3 vote hemlokgang | Aug 16, 2014 |
The Presidency of James Garfield went unfulfilled by his untimely death. He was a victim of his time because medical treatment was not able to adequately attend to the injury. Today, he would have survived seems evident. But during his time attempting to recover from the bullet wound, Garfield's patience and character are relevant. And great lengths were made to accommodate the wounded President and make him comfortable. It's quite interesting. ( )
1 vote MikeBiever | Jul 31, 2014 |
Before reading Destiny of the Republic, I knew roughly three things about James A. Garfield: 1. He’d been president once, a long time ago; 2. He shared his name with a cartoon cat; 3. Wasn’t he one of the ones who was shot? I didn’t have any particular interest in learning any more about him, but a friend recommended this book when I said that I enjoyed Devil in the White City.

Since I started reading this, I’ve found ways to work interesting facts about Garfield—as well as Alexander Graham Bell, metal detectors, the New York Customs House, Abraham Lincoln, mental health and medical history, and so much other stuff—into many other conversations. My friends know more about Garfield now than before I started reading this! If my American History classes in high school had been this engaging, I would have remembered a lot more of the details.

I got this from the library as an audio book that I listened to in the car. The writing is so personal and close that I found myself crying some mornings on the way to work. Sometimes just in utter frustration at how many tiny things could have gone differently, which would have allowed Garfield to live. Candice Millard does such an amazing job of convincing you that Garfield would have been a fantastic president, and he was certainly well loved at the time he died. I used to live in DC, and I always wondered why there was a big monument of him right in front of the Capitol. Now I know why he was so incredibly popular, but he died before he was able to affect much direct and lasting change.

I could go on and on about how much I learned from this engaging book (and, if you know me personally, you’ve heard me do so), but it would be better if you just read it yourself. Seriously, just give it a shot. You’ll be amazed at how much you find yourself caring about this almost-forgotten president and his life before you finish the first chapter. ( )
2 vote JLSmither | Jul 29, 2014 |
Wonderful read about a president I knew very little about, and the history of the times around his assassination that pre-date security details, access to the president, what seem to be common sense medical procedures nowadays, and the contributions of Alexander Graham Bell of the "induction machine" and teaching of deaf people. Not to mention what a highly regarded man Garfield was, and how his death and the mourning of the country brought people together for the first time, not as North & South, but as Americans. Highly recommend! ( )
  azrowan | Jul 7, 2014 |
Six-word review: How professional arrogance killed a president.

Extended review:

I don't read much in the way of history, memoir, biography, or other narrative nonfiction. Once in a while, though, I do step outside my customary paths and pick up something that holds my attention in much the same way as good fiction: with story, character, setting, theme, and capable craftsmanship. Destiny of the Republic is such a book. The element of documentable factuality adds significance, and the profound effect of this episode on the American nation as a whole confers a gravitas not to be found in any personal drama, no matter how compelling.

I had never read anything more about James A. Garfield than the few compulsory paragraphs I must have encountered in American history textbooks. His term was so brief, only six months including the two that he spent convalescing after the shooting in July of 1881, that no important changes or lasting achievements were credited to him, at least in my memory. What I never took in as a student was the impact of his assassination itself, much less the meaning of the election and then the loss of this honorable man who had never sought the presidency and had indeed tried to evade it.

As Millard so absorbingly tells it, the drama that unfolds with Garfield's nomination, election, violent injury, and tragic death reflects not only the shape of the nation a century after its founding but also the state of medical science, early advances in telephony, and so light a disregard for national security that it amounts to astounding laxity by today's standards. The intertwined threads of history weave what can almost be seen as inevitability in the way it plays out.

As told by the author, the true villain of the tale is not the deluded madman Charles Guiteau, who pulled the fateful trigger, but another deluded individual, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, the arrogant physician who interposed his own ego-driven agenda between the life of the president and the possibility of remedy by a hand other than his own.

This sad story grieves the heart for the fate of a good man who might have been a great president. It's impossible not to wonder how drastically the course of events in the United States and the world might have been altered by just one or two different choices by key individuals at crucial times. That question, I suppose, is one of the enduring fascinations of history. ( )
1 vote Meredy | Jun 1, 2014 |
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