Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
Author: Candice Millard
Publisher-Format: Doubleday (2011), ARC, 352 pages
 also Audio: Books on Tape, 9 hours, 47 minutes
Narrator: Paul  Michael
Subject: The assassination of Charles Garfield
Setting: Washington DC, various other US cites
Genre: historical narrative, biography
Source: ARC from publisher, audio from public library
Recommended? Defintely.

A wonderful surprise.  I'm ashamed to say I've had this ARC sitting on my shelf since last July and while I wanted to read it, I just couldn't find enough inspiration to butt it up in the queue.  Two weeks ago, I saw it available on the library's audio download, and I grabbed it.  Once I started listening, I couldn't stop, and found myself  jumping ahead in the book. Instead of the standard biography, Millard has given us a masterful study of the era of the late 19th century when the country was finally beginning to mend from the Civil War.  She does this in a unique presentation from three different perspectives: that of Garfield and the politics of the Republican party; that of the megolamaniac Charles Guiteau, Garfield's "assassin", and the scientific influences of the times as we meet Alexander Graham Bell, and Joseph Lister the author of the theory of disease causing micro-organisms.

These seemingly disparate stories come together as Millard shows us Garfield's love of learning, particularly science. Having served successfully in the Union Army, he then served nine terms as Ohio Congressman until his unanticipated nomination for President on the Republican ticket. Our science/medicine lesson begins with an exciting glance at the United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where the Hall of Machinery featured such exhibitors as Alexander Graham Bell and his telephone.  At the same time, in another area Joseph Lister was trying in vain to convince the doctors of the US of the need to wash hands, instruments, wound sites with carbolic acid to kill germs.  He was not well accepted, and the rejection of his theories became critical in the failed attempts to save Garfield's life.  Finally, throughout the book, we follow the movements of Charles Guiteau, the mentally unbalanced self-appointed individual who considered himself "chosen by God" to "remove President Garfield" so that Chester Arthur (the vice-president) could assume the throne and appoint Charles Guiteau to a government position.

These three separate but inter-related stories are woven together in a page-turning narrative.  I knew some of the facts before I started reading this story.  I knew Garfield had been assassinated; I knew that Alexander Graham Bell had invented other scientifically valuable devices besides the telephone; I knew that Lister was credited with the discovery of the theory of germs; and I knew that Garfield was succeeded by Chester Arthur.  But the incredible detail and masterful blending of these different aspects of the worlds of science and politics kept me reading and reading and reading.  I have a different and deeper appreciation for most of the players in this tableau.

The villain turns out not to be the so-called assassin.  I doubt today that any jury would convict this man of murder - assuming his case ever came to trial.  Millard's assertion that Garfield was killed by his doctors, not by the assassin's bullet will find no argument from me.  It's a sad, depressing, discouraging story of how ego can kill, of how humans can deceive themselves, and how far we've come and how far we still have to go  in the field of medicine, and the political arena.

Other players who were fleshed out to step into the limelight include Lucretia Garfield (the President's wife), Robert Todd Lincoln, Joseph Stanley Brown (Garfield's private secretary), Dr. Doctor Bliss (the incompetent physician who self-appointed himself to be in charge of the president's care), Roscoe Conkling ( a crooked politician who mentored Chester Arthur until Arthur became President), and vice-President Arthur himself.  All of these are featured in enough detail to explain their roles in the drama, but without too much verbiage.  In fact, one of the best things I can say about the book besides the well-told story, is to praise the tight editing which gave us a story well worth reading without dragging us down with myriad unnecessary details.

Finally, it is a monumental tribute to an obviously under-rated President. By showing us his focus on education as the way out of poverty, his willingness to embrace science,  his insistence of bettering the lives of  blacks by giving them education, jobs and the vote, and his unfinished  plans to reform the Congressional system of awarding federal jobs to cronies which led to Arthur's founding of the Civil Service, Millard demonstrates his greatness as it has not been shown before.   His home in Mentor OH houses the first Presidential library, started by his wife and his personal secretary Joseph Brown.  I just may have to make a trip out there to explore this interesting historical figure in more depth.  And I know I'll have to find Candice Mallard's other book about Theodore Roosevelt and read that one too.


  1. This sounds like my kind of book. I'd like to know more about the Centennial Exhibition in Phila. in 1876, and I'm always happy to see a reference to Robert Todd Lincoln, a controversial but much misunderstood man. It's going on my list.

  2. Wow.. like you.. I've had the ARC for many months, yet whatever inspired me to accept the book was forgotten. And now.. the inspiration hits again, thanks to your review.

  3. happily, I do not have this ARC..because I can not get a lot of interest in Garfield going. Now Alexander Graham Bell is another matter..

  4. I'm glad you gave this such a good review. My brother loves Civil War books and he listens to audio books on his way to work, so I just bought this for him for his birthday because it seemed like it would be interesting.


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