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Book Review: Destiny of the Republic

A couple of nights ago I finished reading Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it highly. It is apparent even before one reads the acknowledgement at the end of the book that Ms. Millard has put a lot of effort into her research. It seems to have been as much of a labour of love for her as a work of history. In this book, Ms. Millard tells a wonderful story of a little known and forgotten part of American history, the assassination of President James Abram Garfield, the 20th President of the United States. Although history appears to have forgotten Garfield's brief tenure as President, Millard reminds us of what an able leader Garfield was, and gives us insight into what a courageous, moral and intellectually gifted man he was. She gives us a glimpse of Garfield the good family man, the enemy of cronyism and tells us about the world in which he lived.

Ms. Millard writes about the conditions which placed Garfield in the White House in spite of his apparent lack of desire for the job, and about his political battle with New York Senator and political boss Roscoe Conklin and his Stalwart faction as the ethical president sought to replace the spoils system with one in which important government positions are obtained based on merit.

We are treated to a glimpse of what it must have been like in Washington on July 2, 1881 to observe the shooting of President Garfield as he sought to board a train with the members of his cabinet. Millard describes the mood of the city and of the nation as they learn of the shooting. The book goes on to describe in interesting detail several aspects of this historical event: the path of the mentally unbalanced assassin Charles Guiteau both before and after the shooting, the medical incompetence of the doctors who treated Garfield (especially the egotistical and controlling "Dr. Doctor Bliss"), Roscoe Conklin's fall from political grace and the resulting humiliation, the conversion of Vice-President Chester Alan Arthur from sycophantic Stalwart to independent reformer, the story of inventor Alexander Graham Bell's effort to invent a device to locate the bullet lodged inside of Garfield, and the rejection of Dr. Joseph Lister's discovery of sterilization and its subsequent vindication. Most importantly, she captures the mood of the nation as it suffers collectively along with its suffering leader, and how north and south set aside past grievances to mourn for their slain President.

What makes this book so enjoyable and readable is both the story itself, and its telling. In the acknowledgement section at the end of the book, we get an insight into the author's research and the passion that she put into the writing of this book. Reading this book is a pleasure whether the reader is a history geek or someone who simply enjoys the telling of a fascinating historical tale masterfully told.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 15th, 2011 03:13 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a very good book. I'll have to see if Powell's has a used copy. (Or, I suppose, I could just go to the library. Hmm.) In any event, I am totally going to check this out. Thanks!
Oct. 15th, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC)

She also wrote a book about Teddy Roosevelt's trip to South America (after his presidency) called The River of Doubt. I haven't read it yet, but seeing the passion that she puts into her writing, I want to read it someday.

Oct. 16th, 2011 06:24 am (UTC)
A rec from you - I'm on my way.. While there will order Walter Isaacson's
new book on Steve Jobs.
I am over the moon over Steve Jobs.. Never knew a thing about his way in
the world.. Can't wait to read it..? What do you think, Ken? How would
any of your presidents do with Jobs?
Oct. 16th, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure if I understand the question. Jobs was definitely an innovator and a visionary. In the modern presidency, presidents seem too short=sighted, worrying only about what will get them past the next election, not look to the future. If voters and congress would ever allow it, we could use leadership that was dedicated to defining and solving problems and that looked to the next generation and other generations to come.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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