Skip to main content
PBS logo

Search - The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President

The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President
The Destiny of the Republic A Tale of Madness Medicine the Murder of a President
Author: Candice Millard
James A. Garfield may have been the most extraordinary man ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months ...  more »
ISBN-13: 9780385526265
ISBN-10: 0385526261
Publication Date: 9/20/2011
Pages: 368
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.

4 stars, based on 13 ratings
Publisher: Doubleday
Book Type: Hardcover
Other Versions: Paperback, Audio CD
Members Wishing: 23
Reviews: Member | Amazon | Write a Review

Top Member Book Reviews

cathyskye avatar reviewed The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President on + 2252 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 3
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.
wandagirl avatar reviewed The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President on + 41 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
I loved I his book. So much history about people and events I have not heard before. I knew little to nothing about James Garfield the man and president. The roll his doctors played in his death, his wife and family, Alexander Graham Bell and the inventions Garfield's illness inspired, the surge that brought grieving people of America together. The new interest in germs and their deadly effects,resulting in more study and understanding. The man who shot the President....all amazing stories bound together in this historical account. Very interesting and thought provoking. :)
Read All 11 Book Reviews of "The Destiny of the Republic A Tale of Madness Medicine the Murder of a President"

Please Log in to Rate these Book Reviews

brainybibliophile avatar reviewed The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President on + 19 more book reviews
I did not expect a work of nonfiction about a U.S. President who lived more than a century ago to make me cry. But it did.
Millard's book about James A. Garfield's unlikely rise to political power and catastrophic, slow death from a madman's bullet is a window into a different America--one with doctors disdaining instrument sterilization, very few telephones, a rat-infested White House, no Secret Service, and president-vice-president pairs at different ends of the political spectrum. It's also a peek at a man who captured America's heart, and rightly so.
Millard offers biographical background on Garfield before detailing a story of surprise: his completely out-of-the-blue Republican nomination for presidential candidacy. Garfield was at the convention in 1880 to nominate John Sherman. Somehow, Garfield emerged the victor--a burden he accepted with characteristic grace and humility. Millard vividly shows Garfield negotiating (and resisting) a host of other colorful political figures: James Blaine, Chester Arthur, and Roscoe Conkling, among others. However, more background on the infighting within the Republican party would have been helpful before the details of the convention itself.
Destiny of the Republic is also a story of insanity, that of perpetual job-seeker Charles Guiteau. In fact, the book opens with Guiteau surviving a crash between two ships and sensing a "divine mission." As Guiteau is turned away repeatedly from the White House, despite his belief that he will be installed as an ambassador, his frustration cements into a plan to shoot the newly elected President and, he mistakenly believes, thereby win the adoration of the American people. Millard paints him unsympathetically and explores the historical development of the "temporary insanity" defense in England and America to explain the outcome of United States v. Charles J. Guiteau.
Garfield's slow demise after the attempted assassination is also a story of contemporary shock and dismay, for, had the many doctors who treated Garfield cleaned their instruments and resisted sticking their fingers into his wound, he likely would have survived his injuries. All germaphobes will have difficulty reading the latter half of the book that describes their "care" of the President--especially Dr. D. Willard Bliss' short-sighted decisions to disregard the urgings of Dr. Joseph Lister about antisepsis and to limit Alexander Graham Bell's full access to Garfield with his "induction balance" (something I had never heard of).
Most of all, Millard's tale is a story of patriotic love. To allow Garfield to achieve his wish of seeing the sea before his inevitable death, two thousand people worked through the night to lay thousands of feet of railroad track so his ailing body could be carried right to the door of Franklyn Cottage. Two hundred men pushed his railroad coaches over the final hill when the engine wasn't enough. When Garfield passed, the country grieved collectively for him. Millard reports that there may have been a hundred thousand mourners near the Capitol when his body returned to Washington.
It was a different America then. One from which we can learn much.
jamblazer avatar reviewed The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President on + 18 more book reviews
Candice Millard is an exceptional writer who puts an amazing amount of research into her books. This book presents the torturous story of the shooting of President James Garfield and his subsequent suffering and painful death, with surprising insights and revelations into medical and political factors surrounding this event.
reviewed The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President on + 10 more book reviews
Another excellent book by Candice Millard - her first, River of Doubt, is a must-read. In Destiny of the Republic, Millard weaves the stories of three main characters from before their intersection to the tragic conclusion, building empathy for one, sadness for another, and frustration/anger for the third. Superbly researched and compellingly written.
reviewed The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President on + 3 more book reviews
She made history come alive, told an excellent true story & I learned a LOT about how backward we were about germs then. Also ordered River of Doubt by her too & am just starting it.
maura853 avatar reviewed The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President on + 542 more book reviews
A fascinating account of the assassination of President James Garfield-- the political corruption that led a deranged office-seeker to attack him, the ignorance and stupidity of the "great" medical minds who actually killed him, and the efforts of Alexander Graham Bell to save him, with one of his lesser known inventions.

I should make it clear that Millard's primary focus is President James Garfield who, as her text describes very convincingly, would probably have been one of our greatest Presidents, if he hadn't fallen victim to the delusions of Charles Guiteau. Its very hard to read about the hopes and plans that Garfield - - a reluctant President, if there ever was one-- had for his Administration. Heartbreaking to read the suffering he endured after Guiteau shot him, as doctors with more interest in their status, and their futures as "saviours" of the President, subjected him to painful, stupid and ultimately murderous treatments.

Millard's account is very readable, keeping things going at a fair old pace as she charts the trajectory of Garfield's date with madness in a Washington DC train station waiting room, splicing in background information about the main players to put everything in context.

Finishing it, I felt like I understood something about an episode in America history that I should have learned about in school. This was my second reading, as a book club choice, and it probably says all you need to know that I was delighted to be given an excuse to read it again....