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

Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard (Doubleday Books, 2011)

Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard (Doubleday Books, 2011)

Having been nursing a growing interest in late 19th century America for a few years now, Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic seemed a logical choice for me to pick up. It has been compared to Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City, and there are incidental echoes of that book, but Destiny of the Republic is clearly its own work, and is well worth reading in its own right.

The tale of Garfield’s tragically short Presidency is told by interweaving it with that of his murderer, the clearly deranged Charles Guiteau. Also finding Millard’s spotlight are the doctors who tried to save Garfield’s life but in fact – due to their rejection of the cutting edge (forgive the pun) of surgical science – ended up killing him. Finally, the reader’s attention is drawn to inventor Alexander Graham Bell, whose development of an early metal detector came too late to correctly locate the ball fired by Guiteau’s pistol, which had lodged in Garfield’s body.

It may have been the quality of Millard’s story, but I found myself annoyed that I didn’t know more of Garfield, for he is cast in this book as a good, progressive, likeable, and incredibly hard-working family man and politician. I found myself wondering, as perhaps others will also, why there are so few of those on the stage today. Garfield is so attractively presented that one cannot help but imagine how history might have been different had he survived his first term as President, rather being replaced by the rather less compelling figure of Chester A. Arthur.

Perhaps the most painful part of the story is the recounting of the surgical practices of Garfield’s doctors, which will strike the modern reader as brutal, haphazard, and ignorant – all of which they were. Although Lister had begun to understand the nature of infection by this period, the arrogance of the doctors does make on wonder how anybody survived the 19th century at all. Descriptions of examining Garfield’s wound with unsterilized fingers are not excessive, but readers who are squeamish may wish to avoid those sections. In the end, it is important to remember that ultimately and tragically, Garfield was not killed by the bullet which Guiteau fired into him: he was killed by the ravaging infection which followed, which may well have been introduced to his body by the repeated probings of his doctors.

This book will intrigue, educate, and sadden readers interested in politics, history, or those who are simply looking for a story of the deep and abiding injustice that is often the product of the uncaring machineries of history. Perhaps it will drive other readers to seek out more books on this period of American history, the curious inter-regnum between the Reconstruction and the First World War. Personally, I now want to go out and find other biographies of some of the central figures, including the doomed President James Garfield, his predecessor Rutherford Hayes, and his successor, Chester Arthur. On the side, biographies of James Blaine and Roscoe Conkling might also be of interest.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a brief note on the Kindle edition: although convenient, the Kindle edition fails on a couple of key measures. (Note: I have used both the Kindle for iPad application and a physical Kindle, your results may be different – if so, please comment so that readers can see that these aren’t a universal problem.) First, the footnotes aren’t linked in the text. They are numbered, and the numbers link back to the place in the text where they should have been linked, but aren’t. Some people may not be inveterate footnote readers, but if you are, as I am, this may well annoy you. Secondly, there must be a better way to manage the photos than to stick them at the very end of the document, without referencing them at all in the body of the text. Come on, publishers, this is hypertext – you should be able to do better, especially when you have charged half of the hardcover price for dubious pleasure of reading an electronic edition!

Book: 4.5 stars. Recommended. Kindle ePub: 2 stars

Originally reviewed 7 October 2011.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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