Monday, October 27, 2014

Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Candice Millard

Category: Nonfiction: Politics & Washington, D.C.

Synopsis: Millard recounts President James Garfield’s assassination and all the history surrounding it.

Date finished: 24 August 2014

Rating: *****

I just can’t even tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Writing reviews for books I love is the hardest writing I do. It’s like trying to intelligently explain to someone why you collect ceramic pigs. You can’t do it. Writing good reviews is my ceramic pig collection, I guess you could say.


The university I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life (yipes!) is set on Garfield Avenue. I’d always wondered what kind of president Garfield was. I’d never heard or read anything about him in school, so I figured he was one of those presidents who didn’t get much done and was doomed to be a part of the lineup but not a key player. And actually, that’s partly true, but only because Garfield suffered an assassination attempt just a few short months into his presidency. He spent the rest of his term (two months) dying from his well-meaning doctors’ attempts to save him.

James Garfield, our twentieth president, was an honest, upright, articulate man. He stood for principle. The American people loved him. And so, when a deranged assassin shoots him in a train station, the American public holds vigil. His doctors produce frequent updates, though not all are entirely honest. Still, the people anticipate the worst. They’d just been through the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination not a full generation before. They’re a tired people, they wonder just what the world is coming to.

What makes this tragedy even more terrible is that the very doctors who mean to save Garfield’s life are the ones responsible for hastening his death. In fact, Millard asserts that the location of the bullet was fortuitous. If left alone, it would have caused Garfield no pain or damage, and he’d live a full life. It’s the probing of the wound with unsterilized instruments, and indeed, human fingers, that causes infection so severe it takes the president’s life. You see, Lister’s notion of antiseptic surgery was just taking hold, but many physicians in America had not yet attached to the idea.

In addition to meeting James Garfield, we meet his assassin, Guiteau. We’re also told about Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts to produce a sort of electromagnetic divining device to locate the bullet in Garfield’s body. Bell works obsessively to bring the apparatus to fruition. We are shown the lengths to which a grieving nation goes to honor its president. And we are introduced to the nation’s twenty-first president, Chester Arthur, who begins his term as an ill-prepared puppet, but leaves it a respected man.

Millard tells a flawless story, packed with history. She writes in such a way that you empathize deeply with 1880s Americans. You mourn the president who died almost 135 years ago. It was just superbly written. My favorite story all year is the story of how Garfield wins his party’s nomination for the presidency. It made me laugh and cheer. You’ll love it. 

You might think by the subject matter that this book will be dour, dark, depressing. That is not the case at all. In fact, I came from this book with a buoyed sense of patriotism and better view of humanity.

America has had a lot of fine presidents, but it’s going to take something phenomenal to make me like one of their stories as much as I like Garfield’s.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Killing Kennedy


  1. Great review! I LOVED this--politics, medicine, technology, true crime, and psychology all in one very readable book! I've got River of Doubt by Millard--about Teddy Roosevelt--on my TBR stack right now.
    ("It’s like trying to intelligently explain to someone why you collect ceramic pigs." This made me laugh out loud--so true and so well put!!!)

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I liked this book so much--one of my favorites of the year. River of Doubt is on my TBR pile, too. And I'm in the middle of the Ken Burns Roosevelts series, which makes me want to read it even more! What a character that Teddy was!