Book Review by Heidi Simmons
“Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President”
Ask people who the 20th President of the United States was and not many are able to answer. Ask who James Abram Garfield is and still fewer have a clear idea. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor Books, 398 pages) by Candice Millard, is a gripping read about a beloved president’s murder by an assassin and an incompetent doctor.
Millard’s writing is fresh and energetic. Like a Bob Woodward exposé, her work is well-researched and relevant. Millard’s narrative reads like a modern political thriller. Beginning before the Civil War, before Abraham Lincoln is President, with less than 36 states in the union and with no national anthem, Millard adeptly drops us into the detailed and changing world of America during Garfield’s lifetime.
As with many American leaders, James Garfield had an impressive résumé. He was a brilliant man, accomplished in ancient languages, literature and mathematics. Garfield was elected senator and served eight terms. He was made a Union Brigadier General in the Civil War after winning a difficult and important battle. Like other famous Presidents, he grew up impoverished but rose to success with hard work and diligence.
But wait. If you’re thinking this book may be just another boring U.S. History lesson, you would be grossly mistaken and miss out on an exciting read. Millard’s book brings all the turning points of Garfield’s remarkable life into a vivid portrait of a reluctant hero who overcomes obstacles and enemies with tenacity and integrity.
As the subtitle suggests, madness and medicine play a big part in the murder of the President. The madman is assassin Charles Guiteau. His biography is similar to shooters James Holt and Jared Lee Loughner. Guiteau is delusional. He believes he is too good to work at manual labor and smarter than anyone else, even though he’s failed at everything he’s tried. Guiteau believes God has sent him a personal message to kill President Garfield in order to bring attention to a plagiarized book called “The Truth.” Guiteau thinks the Republican Stalwarts will see him as a hero and appoint him as a foreign ambassador — or even President!
Guiteau shoots President Garfield in the back at a train station. Garfield immediately receives poor care and bad medicine. He is examined on the station floor, probed with dirty fingers and contaminated medical tools. At the time, American medicine had not embraced the recent proven discovery of Joseph Lister’s antisepsis to stop infection. Once Garfield was transported back to the White House, an inept and known quack, D. Willard Bliss, appoints himself the President’s only physician. Bliss saw an opportunity to restore his tarnished reputation. Sadly, Bliss did everything wrong, while the country waited to know the fate of their beloved President. As Garfield’s condition declined, Bliss insisted the President was getting better.
Garfield never wanted the presidency. His friend, President Rutherford B. Hayes no longer wanted the office because of the continual struggle, trouble and embarrassments of the job.
In 1880, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago there was hostility among the fifteen thousand delegates. Millard writes: “The Republican Party was sharply divided into two warring factions. At the convention, delegates had little choice but to choose a side — either the Stalwarts, who were as fiercely committed to defending the spoils system as they were opposed to the reconciliation with the south; or the men whose values Garfield shared, a determined group of reformers who would become know as the Half-Breeds.” She goes on: “Hayes abdication and the escalating battle for control of the party had aroused such intense interest in the nomination that for the first time in Republican history, every state sent a representative”
Garfield, known for his ability as an orator, attended the convention as a reluctant speaker for candidate John Sherman. Not a big fan of Sherman, Garfield had prepared no speech.
Stalwart Ulysses S. Grant was the popular candidate at the convention and after a rousing speech by Roscoe Conkling, a hysterical crowd screamed for Grant to be the nomination.
Off-the-cuff, Garfield addressed the convention: “I have witnessed the extraordinary scenes of this convention with deep solitude. Nothing touches my heart more quickly than a tribute of honor to a great and noble character; but as I sat in my seat and witnessed the demonstration, this assemblage seemed to me a human ocean in tempest. I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured.” Garfield continued eloquently, reminding the delegates of the loved ones at home, the history of the past, hope for the future and the importance of their purpose.
When the convention was over, and against his objection, Garfield became the nominee! Chester Arthur — a man with no public service experience — was selected as vice president for Garfield. Garfield won the presidency without campaigning.
Garfield was a family man who greatly valued his privacy. At the time, Presidents did not have the protection of the Secret Service. Guards seemed un-American and Garfield himself felt it limited the president’s accessibility.
Garfield was only in office 200 days. He died of septic poising two months after being shot. He was 50 years old. If no treatment were performed, Garfield would have survived. At his trial, Guiteau said it was the doctors who murdered Garfield, not he. Garfield’s death united a nation torn in two by the Civil War. Millard writes: “His countrymen mourned not as northerners or southerners, but as Americans.”
Candice Millard has 90 pages of notes, bibliography and index. There are pictures and illustrations. This is American history at its best. Garfield’s life and death changed the destiny of the republic we have today. I could not put this book down.