Jay Connor's Reviews > Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
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Oct 09, 2011

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Read in October, 2011

It's interesting that this year brought two books about the two presidential assassinations that occurred within twenty-years of each other in the later part of the 1800's. "Destiny of the Republic" about the assassination which occurred just four months into the presidency of James Garfield is the better of the two. I'll review "The President and the Assassin" about the murder of President McKinley later this week.

A lot of the strength of "Destiny" is due to author, Candice Millard's wonderful story-telling gift. She wrote the superb "River of Doubt" (2005) about Teddy Roosevelt's post-presidential trek of discovery down Rio da Duvida into the Amazon river basin with Candido Randon. This story was so well told that Roosevelt's definitive biographer -- Edmund Morris -- looked almost amateurish in his retelling in this year's "Colonel Roosevelt."

An overarching feeling one has reading "Destiny" is: what a young and naive country we were -- even twenty years after the Civil War and just 15 years removed from Lincoln's assassination. Charles Guiteau, the assassin was an unhinged office seeker, who, as was the standard of the time, had almost unfettered access to Garfield and his cabinet. So nested in our politics of the time, the spoils system of rewarding your followers with political jobs consumed nearly all the attention of Garfield's new administration -- and this was after 12 years of same party (Republican) rule.

But the truly shocking story is that Garfield died of his medical treatment. Had he not been president, it is very likely that he would have survived the gun shot wound in his back. In the effort to find the bullet, his doctors, headed by D. W. Bliss (as in ignorance-is-Bliss), by arrogantly refusing the "new-age" call for antiseptics, introduce germs and infection to the wound countless times in their fruitless, unsterilized probing.

Millard, as is the gift of special story-tellers, does a wonderful job of fleshing out the background characters: from the acknowledged nincompoop, Vice President Chester Arthur to "boss" Senator Roscoe Conkling to Secretary of State (and future Presidential candidate) William Blain to Alexander Graham Bell to Garfield's wife, Lucretia. A good profile is always one in relief and these rich characters through their reactions and motivations give good understanding into the man, James Garfield.

An interesting fact: Abraham Lincoln's eldest son, Robert, Garfield's Secretary of War, was present at three of four of American Presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. If I were president in the last half of the 1800's and the first quarter of the 1900's, there's someone I might have avoided. Lincoln himself recognized the frequency of these coincidences. He is said to have refused a later presidential invitation with the comment "No, I'm not going, and they'd better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present."
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