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

by Candice Millard

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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 |
When my book club first suggested and then picked Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a president, I was horrified despite its cool sounding subtitle. I mean, James A. Garfield? I know he was one of our presidents who was assassinated but no one ever talks about him. He must be boring and not worth my time.

Boy, I was wrong in utterly fantastic propotions.

James A. Garfield was a simple normal who grow up in poverty. Luckily, he had parents who valued education, and after a near death experience while he worked on a canal, so did Garfield. He worked his way up through the educational system accomplishing much more than what is fathomable for any 26 year old to acheived: he was a head of a school! After that, Garfield worked his way up through the political and legislative arena until he became President of the United States.

Charles Guiteau, a commune living religious zealot believes, after being one of the only few survivors of a capsized ship, that God has chosen him for divine purpose. His crazy ideas lead him believing that he should have a high position within President Garfield's cabinet. After being removed from the White House premises, Guiteau thinks Garfield is the problem and decides to shoot and kill him...which he does but it is a very slow death.

Why?

The Medical association is divided. There's a Dr. Joseph Lister who is advocating for the use of disinfectant on all medical equipment and practice of safe medicine. However, this being the 1880s, the old ways won't be abolished like that. Dr. Bliss is old school and unfortunately he is Garfield's doctor. Bliss' methods of finding the bullet, by poking his unsanitized finger into Garfield's wound, causes irreparable harm.

Candice Millard had a very difficult job to do: combine all of these different elements and still make a fluid and concise telling of history. She could have gotten boggled down by all of the minutiae and this book could have easily been double the page amount. Millard connected Garfield's, Guiteau's, Bliss', and Alexander Graham Bell's lives and made the convergence seem so simple. The near life-death experiences of Garfield and Guiteau and their reactions to them set them on paths they seemed to destined to be.

From reading Charles Johnson's The Ghost Map, I learned how deplorable and downright disgusting the medical practices were in Europe. It was interesting to see the same parallels in Destiny of the Republic. Including right down to someone emerging as the voice of reason and the collective obstinately resistent to change.

What makes Destiny of the Republic so heartbreaking was Garfield's slow and painful death. It's a shame that if he had been shot 15 years later, the x-ray would have been invented and would have located the bullet. Heck, had Bliss let Bell use his machine all over Garfield's body and not just the side the bullet had to be on, Garfield's life have been spared. ( )
  Y2Ash | Apr 16, 2014 |
As much a portrait of an era as a tale of Garfield's assignation. It sounds like Garfield could have been one of our better presidents. ( )
  bke | Mar 30, 2014 |
I loved this book. I thought it was written in a very literary way, not dry non-fiction, at all. I especially enjoyed the little tidbits of history, and the happenings of the time all over the world. President Garfield, though he served such a short term due to his assassination, was a great man from the state of Ohio. While I read this book, describing the turmoil of the time, and the state of the Republican party, torn into separate factions, I thought it was eerily similar to today's happenings in politics. So many topics can be discussed from this book, including the state of medical care and the awareness of mental illness, and of course, politics. I also thought that it was interesting how much Alexander Graham Bell was involved during this time. ( )
  Mathenam | Mar 25, 2014 |
Oh my gosh I could not believe the state of medical care that was described in this book . I do believe infection killed President Garfield not the wound itself ...people supposed drs putting dirty instruments into the wound and therefore adding infection . Oh my goodness as a person who lives in this day and age i cannot imagine the infection that contributed to this mans death . Interesting book this writer did a lot of research and rightly so .
  phonelady61 | Jan 5, 2014 |
Does anyone really care about James Garfield? You will after reading this book. Were it not for the Emperor of Brazil would Alexander Bell have been relinquished to the backwater of history? And how ironic that a British Dr. Lister proclaimed knowledge that had it been followed would have saved Garfield's life?

Our reading club decided to read this book for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that Charles Guiteau hailed from Freeport where most of us live. We used to joke it was Freeport's only claim to fame, home of a presidential assassin. I mean why not? I can see it now, assassination fairs, Guiteau banners, restoration of his house (it's still there,) and some nifty slogans. They could even rename the Freeport Pretzels to the Freeport Assassins.

The author narrates dual tracks, following Guiteau and Garfield. They were so different: Guiteau the religious fanatic and loser, and Garfield the rather brilliant orator (albeit verbose), successful Civil War general, and abolitionist who really didn't want to be president. Guiteau bounced from one scheme to another, convinced, especially after his survival from a ship-wreck, that God had special plans for him. He tried evangelical preaching, lawyering ( in the worst sense of the word), and even joined the Oneida Community where he was shunned by most of the members. They believed in non-monogamous relationships, but the women refused to have anything to do with him, calling him by the nickname, Charles Get-Out.

The recounting of the Republican Convention in 1880 is fascinating. Garfield was not even in the running; he was there to support the nomination of a fellow Ohioan. But things got out of hand after the first ballot failed to nominate a candidate and by the 35th ballot the delegates were looking for an alternative. Despite his best efforts, the convention nominated him to run with Chester Arthur as his running mate. How the assassination changed Arthur (another presidential non-entity) and his rejection of Conklin is also quite fascinating. It wasn't until the assassination of McKinley barely two decades later that focused everyone's attention on presidential security.

Presidential openness and availability has changed drastically. The president remained open to the public, walking around the streets with little thought given to security, and Guiteau was able to just walk up to him and Blaine, the Secretary of State, in a train station and shoot him. Guiteau felt slighted because he was sure, in his mind, that he had been responsible for Garfield's election and was therefore deserving of a place in the administration, specifically the representative to France. When it was not forthcoming, God called him to eliminate the president.

Garfield would have survived easily had he been some bum on the street who received no medical care. The bullet had missed all vital organs, but the initial doctor, ignoring all Lister's medical knowledge to the contrary, poked around in the wound with septic bare fingers and the cause of death was out of control septicemia. There was also an unseemly battle for who was to be the "doctor in charge" of the president's care. The winner, Bliss, really screwed up his care. Many soldiers more severely injured in the Civil War had survived just fine. In fact, the policeman who hauled Guiteau off to jail had a bullet still lodged in his skull. The book could have been titled, The Doctor who Killed the President.

For some, the book will be a disappointment as it focuses on Alexander Graham Bell perhaps more than some would wish. Personally, I like this kind of cultural history/biography mix very much.
( )
1 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
History buffs should try Destiny of the Republic: A tale of madness, medicine and the murder of a President, which is a double biography of the 20th President James A. Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau. The story begins with the presidential race of the 1880s which dark-horse Garfield won. Garfield had a distinguished career as a university president, lawyer, general, and congressman. Guiteau was a failed author, lawyer, and evangelist with delusions of grandeur. When Guiteau failed to be appointed to a post in the Garfield administration, insanity led him to believe that God meant him to kill Garfield. Guiteau shot Garfield four months into the President’s term during the summer of 1881. Garfield did not die immediately, but suffered a lingering death, poor medical care, and eventually died of infection in September. Millard includes information on the political and social realities of the times in a tale that makes for compulsive reading. Millard’s writing is accessible, engaging, and fast-paced. Garfield’s spectacular rise to political prominence, Giteau’s madness and the foreshadowing of his actions, the loss of a potentially great President, the malpractice of Garfield’s doctor’s, the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell in treating the President, and the patronage system of government appointments of the day are all points that can lead to lively discussion.
  ktoonen | Sep 10, 2013 |
I liked it and learned much. Ackerman's Dark Horse was better though, but that says a lot. ( )
  bontley | Aug 24, 2013 |
I vaguely remember studying in American history about the assassination of Garfield; it was just another bunch of stuff to remember until the test. Who knew it could be so interesting. I found this to be a page turner, reading more like a novel than a non-fiction history. Truly, truth can be stranger than fiction.

I applaud Millard's research and admire her ability to put that research into a fascinating story. And, like her in her acknowledgments, I am so happy I am living in an age where medical advances can relieve suffering rather than complicate it. As a reader of historical fiction, I have read plenty of suffering due to war; however, I believe her description of the procedures used on Garfield are some of the most vivid. Even if you are not a history fan, pick up this book and read a few pages, I think you'll be hooked. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 22, 2013 |
An interesting, moving history of James Garfield, of invention, medicine, ego and ignorance of the times, of a truly insane killer, of politics, of post-Civil War America... I really enjoyed this, I thought it very well written. Some of the medical description was a little gruesome, and some of the political review a little dry, but I think it was all important to the story. I couldn't put it down, it moved along so well, I highly recommend it. ( )
  klib315 | Aug 18, 2013 |
One of the best books out of the thousands that I've read over a lifetime is Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey. It's a perfect blend of history, in-depth character analysis, and narrative drive. This book cemented Theodore Roosevelt as one of my favorite presidents and Candice Millard as a writer to watch. When I first read about Destiny of the Republic, I knew I would be getting a copy. Some things are just chiseled in stone. What I didn't realize is that Millard's book would make me (once more) shake my head at what's left out of history books-- especially those that are supposed to be educating children-- and make me mourn the death of a man who could've done so much for this country.

When I was in school, all I learned about President James Garfield were two facts: (1) he wasn't in office long enough to do anything, and (2) he was assassinated by a crazy person. That's it. Leave it to a gifted historian like Millard to show me just how much I wasn't taught. Garfield was a truly extraordinary man. He was born to a life of extreme poverty in a log cabin in rural Ohio, yet he grew to be a formidable scholar, a celebrated member of Congress, and a president who swore to take on the corrupt political machine running the country.

Garfield knew personally the power of education to transform lives, and he never sought any political office he won-- including the office of President of the United States. Those who believed in him nominated him and worked to get him elected, one such campaign costing the whopping sum of $150. He had a clear vision of what this country could become-- through education, science, equality-- and it didn't take others long to realize this. When geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell needed support for a surveying expedition, he turned to Garfield, and with his help, Powell explored the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.

Threaded throughout the diamond mine of information about Garfield is the story of a small-minded man who believed the world owed him fame and wealth and glory. This con man who skipped out on hotel bills was Charles Guiteau, the man who would shoot President James A. Garfield in the back.

Millard builds her character study of Garfield until the reader is heartbroken that the man was never allowed to work on his vision for this country. You know what Guiteau is going to do, but it's still painful when the assassination attempt occurs. What the author then proceeds to show us is that the real assassination occurred during the two months that it took Garfield to die. Too weak to carry on with his duties, Garfield was left to the self-aggrandizing ministrations of a doctor while the political jackals circled to tear off juicy chunks of privilege for themselves before the lions moved in.

What is most horrifying is the fact that Garfield did not have to die, and Millard weaves contemporaries Alexander Graham Bell and James Lister into her narrative to prove the point. There were sterile operating procedures (championed by Lister) in effect at this time. There were people, like Bell, who were working to make medical diagnoses easier. What really killed James Garfield were greed and willful ignorance-- two of the things he'd fought against his entire life.

What makes this book so good is that Candice Millard makes the reader care passionately about the death of a president that took place well over a century ago, and she makes us realize that the very same things that happened then are happening now. Millard is a must-read author for me, and if you like well-researched history that reads like the best fiction, give her a try. I'm sure you'll come to feel the same way I do. ( )
  cathyskye | Aug 17, 2013 |
I loved this book. It was very well-written, well-researched, and fascinating. It's really a tragedy that it all played out as it did. It sounds like Garfield was the best president this country never got the chance to have. ( )
  melanieburger | Aug 13, 2013 |
Very well told and intriguing story about James Garfield's brief tenure as POTUS and how his assassination intersected with the lives and ideas of Alexander Graham Bell and Joseph Lister. Candice Millard certainly succeeds in filling a gap in my own knowledge of US history. ( )
  namfos | Jul 31, 2013 |
Really enjoyed this one. Not just with regard to the assassination but also with regard to the different type of medical attempts to save Garfield's life. Not in my view as great as A Night of Horrors (Lincoln Assassination) but nearly as good. ( )
  moonfish | Jul 23, 2013 |
In the summer of 2011, my family visited James Garfield's home in Mentor, Ohio. We learned a lot about him that we did not know, including some details about his assassination. Not long after that, this narrative of Garfield's assassination appeared in a timely coincidence. The author provides a lot of detail about the background of Garfield's insane murderer. She spares no punches in detailing the deadly errors of the physicians who attended him, and she describes the heroic effort of Alexander Graham Bell to invent an instrument that would locate the bullet. ( )
  proflinton | Jul 17, 2013 |
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