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

This is the first nonfiction book I’ve greatly enjoyed in a long, long time (since Devil in the White City was such a stressful experience).

Destiny of the Republic is about the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield, who was killed not by a gunshot wound but by 19th-century “medicine” and those barbarians known as doctors.

This book has a villain, and it is not Charles Guiteau the lunatic assassin. It is Willard Bliss, the arrogant doctor who sent away every other prestigious doctor who rushed to help, and who gambled the president’s life on his own abilities so that he could win all the credit. It was the most breathtaking act of malpractice and staggeringly wrongheaded conceit I’ve encountered in American history.

But apart from the drama of the shooting and the ghastly medical “treatment” that followed, concluding in the inevitable tragedy — this book was fascinating in its exploration of an  America that, in the 1880s, really was a whole other world. Especially in politics, the way presidential nominations and campaigns took place (featuring a contested convention, something quite relevant to this election year), the fragile state of the union, and — most significantly of all, of course — the attitude toward security around the president.

Of course, nineteenth-century America had nothing of the world importance the modern-day nation has. The motivations and means to assassinate an American president have increased exponentially.

But it amazed me that less than two decades after Lincoln’s assassination, no one thought it necessary to put basic security measures in place around subsequent presidents. Literally anyone could (and did) enter and walk around the White House! His young daughter walked to school by herself each day!

Trivia I found delightful:

  • Presidential candidates used to be above travelling from city to city to stump for their own campaign. Garfield literally stayed at home on the farm from the time of his nomination until after election day.
  • But large groups of people traveled to see him, so he’d obligingly give speeches from his front porch (he was an excellent orator). This included the first non-English speech a presidential candidate ever gave, when a group of German immigrants visited.
  • I’m always surprised to hear of 19th-century women’s deep involvement in politics, considering how none of them could vote. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been to spend all that effort just to persuade men that your candidate is best.
  • Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert had the unlucky distinction of being in fairly close proximity to three assassinated presidents, including witnessing Garfield’s shooting
  • When the dying Garfield relocated to New Jersey to be by his beloved water when he died, all the trains along the way stopped and silenced their engines so as not to disturb him as he passed.
  • That whole expression “Ignorance is bliss”? Originated as a backhanded tribute to Willard Bliss, after the autopsy revealed how wrong he’d been, at every stage, about the president’s condition.

There were also a few great one-line quotes:

Garfield had “dangerous enemies and problematic friends.”

Shouldn’t we all wish to be so lucky?

And on Garfield’s inability to hold a grudge:

“I am a poor hater,” he ruefully admitted.

Also, reasons I should not have a career in law enforcement: I was glad that Guiteau was hanged, even though I am completely convinced of his insanity and know, intellectually, that the mentally ill should not be held accountable for their actions. Maybe if Garfield had died quickly, I wouldn’t feel so strongly. But I know my wrath is misdirected — Guiteau himself proclaimed the truth in his trial, to my disconcerted surprise:

“General Garfield died from malpractice…. According to his own physicians, he was not fatally shot. The doctors who mistreated him out to bear the odium of his death, and not his assailant. They ought to be indicted for murdering James A. Garfield, and not me.”

His sister Frances, though not insane, showed a shocking lack of discernment, tact, and basic respect toward Garfield’s widow, Lucretia. She not only wrote Lucretia directly to beg for her to intervene to save her brother’s life, but went to her house in Ohio, entering to wait in the living room while Lucretia was out. When Lucretia returned, she of course went to her room directly and refused to see Frances, who finally left. But she passed Garfield’s teenage daughter Molly on the porch, who stared after her, wondering who she was. Later, Molly wrote in her diary how she couldn’t forgive Guiteau and was shocked and disgusted by his sister’s audacity. I feel you, Molly.

Sweeter yet, Molly ended up marrying Garfield’s personal secretary, who had been only 21 when he was hired and 23 when Garfield died, and like a son to him.

In summary: highly educational, compelling writing, good political and medical history — five stars all around.

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