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

Candice Millard

This is a surprisingly good biography.  I say surprisingly good because James Garfield is not a well-known president.  He only served a few months before a deranged assassin shot him, leading to his death about two months later.  He is not well-known to history, but he was much loved at the time, and in general, quite a remarkable man.

His father died when he was only an infant, and his widowed mother raised Garfield and his siblings in poverty.  But he rose above the poverty, getting an education and learning everything he could.  He was a voracious reader and an indefatigable learner.  He quickly became a professor in college and then the president of a college before entering politics.

He rose to a prominent position in the US congress and to his surprise, to everyone’s surprise, he became the Republican nominee for president in 1880.  He did not want the presidency and did not seek it, but nonetheless he was nominated and then elected.

He did not serve long enough to have any notable achievement, but under the right circumstances he could have been a great president.  Perhaps one of the best. 

Moreover, he was a good man.  He was big-hearted, a man of character and integrity, a devoted husband and father, warm and fun-loving.

When he was shot, the entire nation was grief-stricken.  In fact, his assassination in some ways united the country that had been ravaged by the Civil War, for all the country mourned for him not as northerners and southerners, but as Americans.

His early death led to several other changes also.  For one thing it transformed the weak Vice President, Chester Arthur, into a strong man of character and fortitude.  Also his death led to the failed career of New York’s powerful political boss Roscoe Conkling, who dominated the Democratic Party at the time and was behind the corrupt spoils system of government.  Arthur and Congress passed legislation to reform the spoils system by which political favors were passed down.

Garfield’s death could have been prevented if his doctors and surgeons would have accepted the early work of Dr. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon who called for antiseptic surgery to prevent infection by the unseen germs.  Lister’s ideas were scoffed at by many doctors at the time, but became widely accepted after Garfield’s death.

A final interesting note of this biography is the role that Alexander Graham Bell would play.  The young Bell had already invented the telephone and had become world famous.  With the shooting of Garfield, he worked non-stop to invent a machine that could locate a bullet.  Though this did not lead to Garfield’s recovery, his machine, essentially a metal detector for finding bullets in a body, was used until the invention of x-ray decades later.

Candice Millard has written niche history books on two other figures:  Theodore Roosevelt’s journey down the river in the Amazon, and the young Winston Churchill’s escape during the Boer War.  This is her first full-length biography and it is excellent.