I just finished reading Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic. The subtitle of the book is A tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. That pretty much sums up this book about our twentieth president, James Garfield and his assassination.
Destiny of the Republic is the latest book I have completed as a part of my Presidential Reading Project. I’m reading at least one book about each of our presidents. If you would like to see a summary of my progress, a list of the books I’ve read and links to my reviews of them is here.
James Garfield was born in 1831. He was inaugurated as President in March of 1881. He was shot in July of 1881 and he died September 19, 1881. He was just 49.
Garfield did not want to run for president. He was drafted on the 36th ballot taken at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. He appears to have been a truly good man who wanted to bring the country together. I think he would have been an excellent president.
Garfield’s vice presidential running mate was chosen with no input from Garfield. Chester Arthur had never held a public position except as Collector of the New York Customs House a position he was appointed to for political reasons. Politically he was the creation of Roscoe Conkling the senator from New York who was probably the most powerful man in the country and perhaps also the most corrupt.
Even though Joseph Lister and the antiseptic surgery he pioneered were widely accepted in Europe in 1881, the idea of germs was considered laughable by the doctors who treated Garfield. He probably would have lived if the doctors had not introduced germs as they repeatedly searched for the assassin’s bullet. Ultimately it was the infection that killed Garfield.
Destiny of the Republic is a fascinating book. Millard knows how to tell a story and educate you at the same time. Another of her books that I enjoyed is The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.
Garfield’s assassination by a madman who thought he was doing God’s work was so pointless. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed Destiny of the Republic. I appreciated the hopefulness of it. Garfield became President shortly after the end of the Civil War at a time when our country seemed irrevocably divided. I especially like one of the points Millard makes about Garfield in the epilogue.
“The horror and senselessness of his death, and the wasted promise of his life, brought tremendous change to the country he loved — change that, had it come earlier, almost certainly would have spared his life. Garfield’s long illness and painful death brought the country together in a way that, even the day before the assassination attempt had seemed to most Americans impossible. “