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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

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

It is without hesitation that I give this biography 5 stars and wish that I could give it more. Everything about this book is wonderfully done, resulting in nonfiction that is every bit as captivating as any novel. I knew next to nothing about James Garfield before listening to this book, but I am happy to have been introduced to him.


What an amazing person to be elected to the presidency despite his own reluctance to even participate in the Republican nominations. The US, still reeling from the effects of the Civil War, finally had found a man that they could unite behind. Garfield was intelligent, well-spoken, and kind. Unlike other politicians, he did not look for personal advancement but hoped to do his part to improve the country he served. 


'For mere vengeance I would do nothing. This nation is too great to look for mere revenge. But for security of the future I would do every thing.'


This book is written to fully immerse the reader in the late 19th century. Beginning with a stroll through the 1876 World's Fair to establish the state of technology and medicine of the era, Millard goes on to describe the parallel paths that would bring Garfield and his murderer, Charles Guiteau, together on July 2, 1881. 


Although Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated not 20 years earlier, protection for the president was not only seen as unnecessary, but un-American. The leader of our democratic land should be fully accessible to those who had raised him up. Lincoln's death was seen more as an act of war than the killing of a president. Therefore, Garfield moved about DC with no more protection or guard than the average gentleman.


Watching events fall into place, I felt tense, wishing that I could change the course of history. But this story does not end with Garfield being shot.


'A noble life crowned with heroic death, rises above and outlives the pride and pomp and glory of the mightiest empire of the earth.'


As Guiteau argued at his trial, Garfield was truly murdered by his doctors, in particular Willard Bliss. Though it would not save him, Guiteau was correct. Doctors who ignored medical advances, such as those that had been demonstrated at the 1876 World's Fair, literally put Garfield through hell, causing the healthy, robust man to fall from 210 pounds to 130 pounds during the two months of treatment. Bliss was disdainful of those who lobbied for the sterilization of instruments and surgical rooms. Listening to the treatment of Garfield that caused his slow and painful decline was worse than heartbreaking. It was stomach churning.


Garfield's character was expertly revealed through the quotes inserted into the text. A country mourned over his eminent death as he remained cheerful. He endured painful and unnecessary procedures, yet never doubted his physicians judgement. Though filled with raging infection, unable to eat, and in agony, his first thought was always for his wife. He truly made those around him want to be better men in order to honor him.


One of those men was his vice president, Chester Arthur. Chosen as Garfield's running mate with low expectations, Arthur would prove himself capable of changing and becoming a successor that would have made Garfield proud.


Alexander Bell is another participant in this drama. A teacher for the deaf, Bell is also dedicated to inventions that can improve the lives of others. He works feverishly to create a device that can locate the bullet within Garfield's body that the doctors insist is the root of his problems. His frustration is palpable when he realizes that it was Bliss's incompetence (again) that caused his work to fail.


So many personalities shine through the years since these events all occurred because of the excellent writing and research included in this book. It was inspiring, educational, heart-wrenching, and captivating. Highly recommended.


'We hold reunions, not for the dead, for there is nothing in all the earth that you and I can do for the dead. They are past our help and past our praise. We can add to them no glory, we can give to them no immortality. They do not need us, but forever and forever more we need them.'