Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

I must confess before I read Destiny of the Republic I knew nothing at all about James Garfield, the second president of the United States to be killed in office.  Shame on me.  I've decided to give myself some homework:  reading books about all of the presidents of the United States.  It's a part of American history that was glossed over in school, and wasn't part of my college education at all.  

Candice Millard is an excellent writer; someone who makes history interesting without "dumbing" it down.  James Garfield was a brilliant man; he was a good man with an incredible intellect and natural curiosity about everything around him.  He came from poverty and was raised by his mother after the tragic death of his father when he was a few years old.  He could have given up early in life, but he didn't.  He was driven to succeed, and had a charisma about him that put him in the White House in 1881--and he was reluctant to be president.  It wasn't his plan at all, but in a time of corrupt government, and lots of people doing favors for one another to the detriment of our politics, he stood out as someone who wouldn't be corrupted.  His assassination united a country that was still fractured 20 years after the Civil war.  

This book is more than just a story about Garfield's presidency and assassination.  It is about his life, his legacy, and that hot, sultry summer he lay dying in the White House.  Garfield suffered horribly for over two months before he succumbed to the infection that ravaged his body.  The kicker is that he would have survived the bullet that struck his back; it was the utter disregard for proper medical treatment, and the arrogance of Dr. D. Bliss in not listening to anyone else, that condemned Garfield.  Toss in Alexander Graham Bell and Joseph Lister, who tried for years to convince doctors in America to practice antiseptic surgery (sterilization of instruments, washing hands) and you've got a compelling read. 

 I won't even start on Charles Guiteau, the man who became obsessed with killing Garfield.  The number of times he crossed paths with Garfield, his wife Lucretia, the Secretary of State, and even the Vice-President sent a shiver down my spine.  It forcefully reminded me of how easy it is to be dismissed by everyone as "harmless" until it's too late.  

Destiny of the Republic  was first published in 2011, so I am a bit late to the game.  But any book you haven't read is a new book.  I loved this tale of "madness, medicine, and the murder of a president".  

Rating:  9/10 for a compelling story of a president who didn't live to fulfill his potential, the dangerous games doctors played with his health, and the country that united together that terrible summer so long ago.  Fascinating stuff. 

Available in paperback, e-book, and audio.  There's also a PBS video about Garfield and the assassination.  

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