Timothy Darling'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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's review
Nov 01, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: history, biography
Read in October, 2011

Besides details of Garfield's own biography, this account is peppered with profiles of historical landmarks. Millard represents to us: Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph Lister and anti-sepsis, Garfield's defeat of Humphrey Marshall in the battle for Kentucky, the Chicago Fire and reconstruction. Every student of political science should be required to read the account in Chapter 3 of Garfield's nomination as the Republican candidate to the presidency. The event is sadly lost to most students of history who would understand it and its power is completely put out in today's media driven nomination frenzies. How can we ever regain the ability to raise a man of responsible humility to power? Unfortunately, Millard's account of Garfield's own disinterest in his political career inspires not only respect for Garfield, but incredulity. Could someone be so thrust in spite of his own detatchement and even resistance into power? Is it not more likely (I shudder at my own cynicism) that Garfield had some sort of obscured machinations? I hope Millard is right in her assessment. It is a banner of hope in a manipulative world. However, even cursory reading from other sources shows that there is much Millard left out of her account, certainly so she could move forward to her main point, the assassination.

Millard is a bit guilty of lionizing Garfield. We hear very little about the man's flaws. Most notably his absentee husbanding of Lucretia, his brief affair, and their struggle to heal their relationship. The profiles of Alexander Graham Bell, the killer, Doctor Blain (the surgeon overseeing Garfield's recovery from the shooting), Lucretia, even the brief snapshot of Robert Todd Lincoln is engaging.

It is important to note however, that this is not a biography; it is the record of a death. Millard tracks the character of Garfield only enough to explain the motivation of his killer. Instead her focus is on tracking the multiple facets of the shooting and the attempts afterward to cope with it. The biographical sketches of each individual may not be as well rounded as they could be, but they do demonstrate the intersection of each element very well. The essential elements of that intersection show what is relevant to understanding what a complex and truly tragic event this was.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a story well told. It is positive in its approach and, though it could be more well balanced, it seems to be accurate. It relates some anecdotes in our history that might, for the most part remain in obscurity, since Garfield is so little known. However, Millard's snapshot of this turning point in medicine is a true jewel for the non-specialist who wants to understand how the battle for germs was waged at the turning point of the war. Cudos to Ms. Millard.

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