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

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard James Garfield is one of those on the list of American presidents no one remembers, if not for the fact he is one of four of our presidents to be assassinated, the second after Lincoln. I had also heard before that Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, attempted to use a new invention of his to find the bullet lodged in Garfield's body. After this book, which definitely had some moving passages, I doubt I'll ever forget again our 20th president, who had served for only three months before being gunned down. Even the nondescript bookends who preceded and succeeded him, Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur, are more solid personages to me now. That's one of the things good biography can do--it's a wonderful window into history, to see it through the focus of one life. For much of this fast-reading book, Millard built up Garfield as a paragon, so you wonder if it might have changed the "destiny of the republic" as the title suggests had he lived. Garfield was an "ardent abolitionist" and supporter of black suffrage who won a crucial battle in the American Civil War; Frederick Douglass was a supporter and admirer of Garfield. Millard hints he might have done much to fight for civil rights for Blacks in the South, that he was soon to travel South and give a important speech on race relations. One of the faults of the book, however, is that she doesn't really pin down what his agenda was, and doesn't really speculate on what difference it might have made had he lived. Milliard does give reason to believe that Garfield had a first rate mind and he certainly wasn't power-seeking--at least according to this account. He went to the Republican convention to nominate another man for President and left it the Republican candidate for President--according to Milliard to his chagrin and deep embarrassment--but notably, he didn't turn it down. The picture of Garfield struck me as too good to be true. Nevertheless, there's the small moment that did say a lot about the man's decency. Shot down, his head on the lap of a bystander who rushed to him, he turned his head to avoid vomiting on her skirt. That did speak to me of his consideration of others even in the worse of circumstances, and when I was recounting that story to my aunt I found myself choking back tears. It was hard to read the last third of the book about Garfield's suffering under the ministrations of his doctors, as responsible as the madman who shot him for his death. Ah, 19th century medicine. It seems reading this story, that at least until the 20 century, you probably would have a better chance surviving staying away from doctors than calling them. I wouldn't call this a scholarly history, despite the endnotes and bibliography at the back of the book. It's one of those popular histories written "like a novel" with all sorts of immediate details, ones leaving you dubious they could be gained from a historical record--although according to the introduction, Milliard certainly did plenty of research, even talking to descendents of Garfield. Overall I'd call this, even if not particularly insightful or deep, an entertaining book--and hey, I was tempted to give it a fourth star for making me choke up--I'm not easy. But when I compare this in my mind to the best presidential biographies I've read, or even Milliard's River of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt, this feels a bit too lightweight to rate higher.