History in Review
Destiny of the Republic
A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
By Candice Millard
Reviewed by Boris Segel - November 7, 2012
In Destiny of the Republic Candice Millard chronicles the life, and death of James A. Garfield (1831-1881). Along the way she provides insights into the life of Charles Guiteau (1841-1882), the man who shot Garfield, and both the political and scientific world that the two men lived in. Throughout this compelling historical narrative, Millard also introduces the reader to many of the key figures that played an important role in this story, including Alexander Graham Bell who invented a metal detector to try to locate the bullet lodge in Garfield's body, Chester Arthur who served as Garfield's vice president and who succeeded him in office, Garfield wife Lucretia, Roscoe Conkling, a powerful party boss who opposed Garfield, and many more...
Garfield (1831-1881) was the twentieth-president of the United States - and the second president to be assassinated. Garfield was many things during his short life. He worked on the Erie Canal, he was a scholar and teacher, a father and husband, he was military commander who rose to the rank of Major general during the American Civil War, he was a nine-term congressman, and he was President. However, he seems to have been a man who never aspired to high political office or military honors. Rather he was a man who would have been contented to spend his life surround by his wife and family, and his books. Yet, when called upon to serve, in whatever capacity, he strove to do his best.
While Garfield was a hard working, gregarious, and studious man, his assassin was the direct opposite. Guiteau worked as little as possible, had delusions of grandeur, and was in all probability, clinically insane. Charles Guiteau fired the bullet that entered Garfield's back on July 2, 1881. However, it was Garfield's doctors, in particular Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (Doctor was actually his first name) who in all likelihood did more to kill the President than Guiteau's bullet did.
At the time Garfield was shot, Germ Theory and Joseph Lister's antisepsis practices had been, for the most part, fully accepted in Europe. In America however, there was still much disagreement in the medical community if germs really did exist, and even if they did, would Lister's methods to anything to ameliorate their effects. As a result, Garfield's bullet wounds were continually probed by unsterilized instruments and fingers that introduced a massive infection into his system. It was this infection that was the ultimate cause of Garfield's death.
Over the course of this book, Millard provides a concise, though necessarily brief overview of Garfield's early life and political career, in order to provide a more detailed overview of the assassination attempt and aftermath. She also provides detailed information on Guiteau life. Along the way she provides insightful information about the world they lived in, and the various people with whom their lives intersected. Most important, she examines why Guiteau came to decide that it was necessary to assassinate Garfield, and what he hoped to gain by the act. She details the medical care that Garfield received after he was shot, and how it contributed to his death more than two months later. Millard shows how the assassination touched Americans across the country, and across racial, political, and social divides. As well, she examines Guiteau's trial and the aftermath of the assassination, for the country, and for Garfield's family.
From beginning to end, I found Destiny of the Republic to be a fascinating and engrossing read. It is popular, narrative history at its best. Millard does an excellent job of giving the reader a sense of time and place, and she did it without bogging down the narrative with mind-numbing facts. A superb and highly accessible book, Millard's narrative is equally suited for general readers who simply want to read a compelling narrative about an interesting historic event, as well as students seeking a general introduction into the life and times of James Garfield, before tackling more studious books on the subject. For those that want to delve into Garfield's story in greater detail, this book includes Millard's extensive endnotes and a bibliography.
I highly recommend Destiny of the Republic to all fans of popular histories and biographies.
Fraud of the Century, by Roy Morris.
Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876: an intriguing look at the contentious 1876 electoral contest.
Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire, by Gerard Koeppel.
In this elegantly written and far-reaching narrative, Koeppel tells the astonishing story of the creation of the Erie Canal and the memorable characters who turned a visionary plan into a successful venture.
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