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.
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.
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.
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.
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....