Customer Reviews: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 20, 2011
James Garfield is most often remembered, if at all, as the president who was assassinated shortly after taking office. Destiny of the Republic brings the dead president back to life. This is not, however, a biography of Garfield. Rather, it is a stirring account of American life and politics during the time of the Garfield presidency, not long after the conclusion of the Civil War, and of a presidential murder. Garfield's early years are sketched out in cursory fashion, his (sometimes troubled) relationship with and eventual devotion to his wife Lucretia is covered in only a few pages, and the death of his youngest child receives little more than a mention. Rather than focusing on Garfield's personal life, Candice Millard devotes her attention to political divisions within the Republican Party (particularly Garfield's battles with New York Senator Roscoe Conkling and the vice president he controlled), as well as Garfield's frustration with the obligations of the office that he had little desire to hold.

The president's assassin is given nearly as much attention as the president. There are times when the book has the feel of a thriller, as the ominous Charles Guiteau weaves in and out of the text, inching himself closer to the president. Millard depicts Guiteau as a con man with delusions of grandeur whose madness was characterized by a growing belief that his plan to assassinate Garfield was divinely inspired.

The assassination occurs at the book's midway point. Millard then treats us to a different kind of political battle, a medical drama about doctors who vie for the opportunity to treat the president and who, ironically, become responsible for his death. Arrogant in their refusal to believe in the existence of germs, American doctors rejected evidence that antiseptic surgical conditions increase a patient's chance of survival. The dirty finger and unwashed probes inserted into Garfield's wound in search of a bullet sealed the president's fate, infecting an injury that Garfield would likely have survived if left untreated. The book concludes with an account of Garfield's autopsy and Guiteau's trial.

Destiny of the Republic succeeds on two levels. First, it is informative. Millard fills the text with interesting facts culled from a variety of primary and secondary source materials, including frequent quotations from contemporaneous news stories and Garfield's diary, to set the scene for Garfield's presidency. We learn enough about the man to understand that he would have made an admirable president. It's interesting to note that Garfield, despite his love of farming, was a scholar, a professor of literature and ancient languages, well versed in mathematics and keenly interested in science, the sort of man who, if running for office today, would likely be branded an "elitist." Garfield's speeches condemning slavery and the unequal treatment of black Americans are eloquent and moving; the book is worth reading for those passages alone.

Second, the book is entertaining. Millard's prose is lively. She captures personalities as if she were writing a novel. She seasons the narrative with humor and creates tension as the events leading to Garfield's encounter with Guiteau unfold. Despite its attention to detail, the narrative moves at a brisk pace.

My sole complaint concerns the attention that Millard gives to Alexander Graham Bell. Granted that Bell's life intersected with Garfield's more than once, and that Bell worked diligently to invent a device that would pinpoint the location of the bullet lodged in Garfield's body, the full chapter and parts of several others devoted to Bell's life seem out of place, as if Millard felt the need to pad her relatively short book with filler. I would have preferred a more thorough discussion of the political aftermath of the shooting. Millard tells us of its unifying effect on a nation that emerged from the Civil War still deeply divided, but provides few facts to support that proposition. A more extensive look at the impact of the assassination on the country would have been more germane than the pages devoted to Bell's life before and after his invention of the telephone.

That criticism aside, Destiny of the Republic is perfect for readers (like me) who want to know about a key moment in American history without being subjected to mind-numbing detail or leaden prose. Millard's book is enlightening and enjoyable. Garfield is a dead president I'm happy to have met.
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on September 20, 2011
If the 20th U. S. President, James A. Garfield, had not been so well attended by doctors, he very well might have survived being shot by an assassin. If his doctors, especially the controlling and pompous Dr. Doctor Bliss (no, Dr. Doctor is not a mistype), had been willing to practice Lister's antisepsis techniques, Garfield might have lived. And if the assassin, Guiteau, hadn't been a megalomaniac who thought he was supposed to kill the president, the medical care would never have been needed. As it was, Garfield died slowly and very painfully, and we never were able to benefit from the president he could have been.

As sad as the story is, I loved the telling of it in this book. Author Candice Millard did a wonderful job of tying together the different people most important in this tragedy, and the mood of the times. I would never have known otherwise that Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector so that he could try to locate the bullet still in Garfield's body. I needed a bit stronger stomach than I have to read about Garfield's treatment and the progression of his illness. And, 130 years after his death, I am sorry that he did not get the chance to live his full potential as president. I highly recommend this excellent book.

Thank you to the publisher for giving me an advance reader's edition of the book.
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VINE VOICEon October 3, 2011
I didn't know that much about our twentieth president prior to this book. What I did know: that he was Republican, in office for a short amount of time, and was shot and lingered for months afterwards. Turns out, after reading Candice Miller's wonderful new book, "Destiny of the Republic", there was much more to President James Garfield than I first knew. I ended up with a single question after reading the book: Who was the real killer?

The first mention of Garfield that intrigued me recently came in 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodhart. There, a chapter featured a youngish Garfield, empowered, on the verge of his war greatness, yet somehow innocent and compelling. Had I not read that chapter in 1861, I may have completely skipped over this book. Fortunately I didn't, because Candice Millard's book on his assassination poses many questions, and is incredibly intriguing.

Millard's prose is quick, creating a true page turner. Not overly dwelling in minute details, Millard raises the president from boyhood to presidency quickly, from his hardscrabble existence to his later glories on the battlefield and in the political arena. Garifeld, the man who never wanted to become president, found himself the candidate to break a deadlock in the election. Stepping up to the office, Garfield, saddled with a running mate from a political machine, Chester Arthur, wins and embraces the role of president he would have for a few short months.

We also track the life of the crazed assassin Charles Guiteau, deranged office seeker who was convinced he put Garfield in office with a singular weak speech and then showed up to claim his rightful spot in the administration. Millard doesn't swing Guiteau into a dark maniac, but someone with mental health issues that was loved by his family despite them.

Millard's true villain of the story is the doctor who took over his care (a medical coup, so to speak), Dr. D. W. Bliss, who poo-poohed the pioneering antiseptic work of George Lister, and probed the bullet wound with unwashed hands repeatedly, causing Garfield, who would have likely survived the shot, to transform into an infected being. Millard spares no detail into Garfield's suffering and condition. While Guiteau fired the shot that would lead to Garfield's death, clearly Bliss, unwilling to listen to anyone but himself, led the president to death with his "care".

Other characters in the book include a young Alexander Graham Bell, who created an invention to find the bullet, and Chester Arthur, who recognized his weakness in leadership and was completely horrified at becoming president.

All in all, this was a book that, despite knowing the ending, was a complete and true page turner. If you are into historical fiction, and looking for a great plane/train read, this is your book!
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Having recently enjoyed the quirky Matthew Algeo book about Grover Cleveland, The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, I was ready to tackle another 19th century president.

Destiny of the Republic, which is a phrase from a nominating speech James A. Garfield gave at the Republican convention of 1880, is a fine bit of flowery oratory, but as a book title, I find it completely forgettable. "Decline of the Nation? Debacle of the Century? No, but it's something similar..."

Aside from the dull title, the book is a corker. In the first scene we find our hero, Congressman Garfield, at the Centennial Exposition in Pennsylvania in 1876. He strides along, taking in the displays, while other attendees pay to be pushed in wheelchairs. It seems the spectacle of agile people hopping in and out of their rental rascal scooters at the State Fair that I just visited is part of a long American tradition.

This is not a traditional presidential biography. Instead, Candice Millard has focused the book on the attempted assassination of Garfield and the excruciating two months that followed his shooting.

Millard describes Garfield's rise from poor childhood to academic to state representative to president. On separate but converging paths to Garfield's story are the narratives of Charles Guiteau, the unhinged man who shot Garfield, and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was feverishly working on a kind of x-ray/metal detector that everyone hoped would save the president's life.

Only seventeen years after the assassination of Lincoln traumatized the nation, Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield. The wound was survivable, indeed, many Civil War veterans sustained similar wounds and lived normal lives. But in the confusion surrounding the shooting of a president, one of the few doctors who did not subscribe to the principle of sterilizing hands and medical equipment managed to intimidate everyone into allowing him to take charge of the President's medical care.

Candice Millard tells the story in a clear narrative way that was so full of fascinating details that I kept stopping to check facts. How did she know what Guiteau was thinking or that Vice President Chester Arthur was in tears? Were these colorful speculations that the author tossed in using artistic license? Not at all. Every statement is backed up by endnotes. Millard consulted diaries, letters, court testimony, newspaper accounts and she documents everything rigorously.

As a student, I was bored silly by American history. Over the years I have come to enjoy 20th century history, but still think of 18th and 19th century American history as complete snoozes. I found Ken Burns' Civil War series so slow and low-key that even now the first few notes of the theme music put me into a deep sleep. So I am quite amazed to have liked Destiny of the Republic so much and hope that it is a huge success for Millard.
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on January 4, 2012
If I hadn't read "The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century" by Scott Miller before this book, I would probably have given Millard's book another star. It's ironic that two books on presidential assassinations in the 1800s would have come out within a few months of each other, but since they did, it seems appropriate to compare the two.

Unfortunately, "Destiny of the Republic" comes up short. Miller's book on McKinley is not only an engrossing read, he also does an excellent job presenting themes such as manifest destiny, imperialism and anarchism which make the book feel highly relevent since many of these themes still echo in current events today. Millard, on the other hand, is more constrained in her focus and presents the facts more or less as they happened. The book felt at times like a sepia-colored postcard that is interesting to look at but is ultimately disconnected from anything going on today. There were certainly a number of opportunities for Millard to elaborate on themes such as medicine or technology, but Millard only presents cursory information about these subjects. What impact did President Garfield's doctor's mishandling of his wound have on the medical profession? What happened to the doctors that attended to Garfield? How did America end up with another assassinated president only a few years later? What did the rest of the world think about the assassination? All of these questions and more are either ignored or answered superficially in the short epilogue.

This is still a somewhat engrossing read, and there were certainly some passages that were quite amusing to read, such as finding out that it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to campaign for themselves. I'm sure that many would welcome a return to that sentiment! Ultimately though, Garfield's portrait still felt incomplete. It feels at times like Millard is turning him into a mythical American hero who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through education and hard work, and she avoids elaborating too much on his foibles such as his affair while still married. At 260 pages, this is a relatively short book that could have used a bit more work to really make it shine.
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VINE VOICEon October 20, 2011
Destiny of the Republic interweaves the stories of Charles Guiteau, James Garfield, and Alexander Graham Bell. Charles Guiteau's life story is quite fascinating and it is very clear that the man who would kill Garfield was insane.
James Garfield's story is very American for that time. He grew up poor, but was able to make a name for himself. He never aspired to be President, and reluctantly took the position. He hoped to make changes to the spoils system, but never had the chance.
Bell's story is included as he worked desperately to invent something that could detect the bullet in Garfield's back. He had an interesting history working with the deaf.
Millard is an expert at crafting nonfiction in a way that appeals to the reader. She chooses lesser known historical events and brings them to light by revealing all the characters involved. It was very hard to put down this book, wondering what would happen next. She also does this exceptionally well in The River of Doubt.
I would recommend this to anyone that is a nonfiction reader, especially of history.
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on October 13, 2011
Ms. Millard writes with such great grace, confidence and modesty. Her writing is never pretentious or assuming. She sets varied scenes beautifully so that the reader feels s/he is almost right there; the author then seemingly steps back, calls "Action!" and lets the players and their own words and deeds show what happened. She is judgmental only when all evidence supports her (eg, Dr. Bliss's malfeasance; Guiteau's true insanity).

A few of the wonderfully-told episodes that stick with me: the reverential portrayal of the courageous Garfield's death scene; a "you-are-there" portrayal of Guiteau's execution; James and Lucretia Garfield finding deepest love in their lives together; A. Graham Bell rescued from obscurity by a South American dignitary, and later frantically trying to fine-tune an invention that might save Garfield; the extraordinary Republican convention of 1880, and Garfield's feeling of helplessness in having to be the standard-bearer; the look, smell and feel of the decayed White House; the colossal fall of the imperial and conniving Senator Conkling; the mean-spirited contrivances of Bliss in ensuring that no one, not even Garfield's own physician, could meddle with his incompetent treatment; the awful sorrow felt by almost all Americans, who had seen in the fair, wise and noble Garfield true hope for a lasting reconciliation and forward progress as a unified nation.

Ms. Millard's over-arching triumph, it seems to me, is in synthesizing these many key players and strands into a shining whole that greatly exceeds the sum of its astounding parts. Bravo!
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on September 24, 2011
Fascinating! Informative! If you have any interest in U.S. history, it is those. -- President Garfield! I thought he was just a footnote. No. His death was more tragic (and prolonged) than Kennedy's. Gawd, the political intrigue, the medical profession's almost intentional obstinate ignorance, the general naivete of the times -- fascinating. The book addresses all of those. I am gong to buy copies for friends.
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on September 27, 2011
I don't usually read non-fiction, but this book was so highly recommended to me, that I had to try it. I'm telling you that I could hardly put it down! I was especially fascinated by how the author works in the side stories of Alexander Graham Bell and Dr. Lister. President Garfield's life and death are so interesting, as are Millard's investigations into his assassin's insanity. This President's short life had major implications for everything from poligical reform to the practic of sterilization in medicine! A great read.
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on November 19, 2011
In the (recent) tradition of THE PRESIDENT IS A SICK MAN and THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN, comes another little-told tale of what used to be called the "Chief Magistracy." This one covers arguably the most pointless Presidential assassination in history, Charles Guiteau's 1881 shooting of James Garfield just a few months into the latter's term in office. The standard historical outlay for this affair concerns the unique fact that Garfield lingered on for several months after the shooting before finally succumbing. But, as Millard makes clear in her absorbing book, Garfield's death was anything but inevitable -- and the country may have lost a potentially outstanding President as a result.

With the exception of several digressions into the career and life of Alexander Graham Bell, who used a mechanism called an "induction balance" to try to locate the bullet that had lodged behind Garfield's pancreas, Millard gives us a straightforward narrative. The Garfield she describes was a self-made man who rose from grinding poverty through education and hard work, a classic American tale. But there also seemed to be a touch of genius about the man; what other prominent American politician can claim an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, for example? A Civil War general and a strong advocate of equal rights for freed slaves, the well-liked Garfield might have made a more effective fight against the late-19th-century "Jim Crow" clampdown in the South had he been permitted to live out his three-score-and-ten. Unfortunately, no sooner had Garfield braved the demands of waves of office seekers (this was still the era of the spoils system) and batted down some strong-arm tactics by a would-be power behind the throne -- Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, the patron of Garfield's Vice President, Chester Arthur -- than Guiteau's bullet cut him down.

Garfield's major wound was not actually life-threatening -- and the sad fact is, as Millard relates in sometimes sickening detail, that his doctors were more the cause of his demise than the bullet itself. The American medical establishment of the day scorned the theory of "antiseptic surgery" practiced and promoted by Britain's Dr. Joseph Lister, relying instead on such "heroic" measures as sticking unsterilized fingers and other objects into the wound. Even had Bell succeeded in locating the bullet, Garfield would still probably have died of septic poisoning. The stubborn unwillingness of American doctors to adopt Lister's theories seems rather strange to me; after all, aren't we the "innovator nation"? (Lister himself, in a fruitless attempt to convert skeptics during a lecture at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, pointed out that America had given the medical world anesthesia.) The problem seems to have been the overwhelming importance of seniority (and, hence, a certain hideboundedness) in the medical pecking order at the time. The incompetence of senior medical officers was a problem during the early days of the Civil War, giving rise to the creation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, but evidently the problem also extended into the civilian sphere.

Guiteau gets plenty of attention here as well. He appears to have been the ultimate example of "the lights being on but nobody being home" -- a seemingly rational individual who was nonetheless the prisoner of all sorts of delusions, the most infamous of which was that he had helped Garfield win the Presidency and therefore "deserved" a government sinecure. Sadly, "watch lists" were not a common security practice in 1881 -- nor, in fact, was any sort of formal protection for the President, since John Wilkes Booth's killing of Abraham Lincoln was thought to have been a one-shot (no pun intended) affair stemming from the Civil War atmosphere -- and Guiteau was given the opening he needed to gain infamy. Guiteau's execution is a matter of some controversy due to his apparent insanity (the "insanity plea" was new at the time, but it did exist); my own opinion is that anyone who skipped out of paying hotel, boarding house, and restaurant bills as often as Guiteau did must have had some rudimentary notion of the difference between right and wrong. He just chose not to act on the impulse.

A quick and enjoyable read -- apart from the frequent incidents involving oozing pus, that is -- DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC is another excellent example of a recent book shedding new light on an obscure but significant incident in American history.
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