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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (2011)

de Candice Millard

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A narrative account of the twentieth president's political career offers insight into his background as a scholar and Civil War hero, his battles against the corrupt establishment, and Alexander Graham Bell's failed attempt to save him from an assassin's bullet.
  1. 41
    Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War de Tony Horwitz (doomjesse)
  2. 41
    Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer de James L. Swanson (doomjesse)
  3. 10
    Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield de Kenneth D. Ackerman (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Dark Horse and Destiny of the Republic are detailed, engaging historical biographies about President James Garfield. Both present the man as well as the social and political turmoil surrounding him.

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Review of: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard
by Stan Prager (6-2-24)

Four American presidents have died by assassination, the last when I was six years old. John F. Kennedy, who suffered a devastating head wound, was likely dead on arrival at Parkland Hospital. Nearly a century before, the first, Abraham Lincoln, was also shot in the head, but survived overnight. In 1901, William McKinley took bullets to the abdomen, and lived just slightly longer than a week, with hopes for his recovery rising and falling. But in 1881, James A. Garfield, shot in the back, lingered on the precipice of death—incapacitated and in excruciating pain—for an astonishing seventy-nine days before the end! When it was finally over, he had been president for only just a bit longer than six months, and nearly half of that time he spent very slowly dying. In the meantime, the entire nation, nearly paralyzed, watched and waited.
In Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President [2011], Candice Millard, certainly one of history’s greatest storytellers, splendidly captures the high drama of this event and its aftermath while skillfully recreating the milieu of an America—despite the brief interval in years—strikingly different than that which belonged to Lincoln or McKinley. 1880, the year Garfield was elected, was only fifteen years removed from Appomattox, but a time traveler from Wilmer McLean’s parlor would be astonished to find an entirely different version of this United States, marked by rapid economic expansion and the outsize wealth creation that characterized the Gilded Age—fueled by opportunity, ambition, and the technological advances of the Second Industrial Revolution. And it sat perched on the edge of even more wonders to come, the very dawn of the age of the great inventions that would so thoroughly transform American life over just three decades, with the incandescent bulb and widespread electrification, the phonograph, motion pictures, the automobile, and even manned flight!
But the first of these marvels—the telephone, which truly revolutionized communications—was becoming increasingly common. Patented in 1876, one was installed in the White House in 1879. (We can only imagine how eagerly Lincoln—who leaned so heavily on the telegraph for news of battlefield results—would have adopted this innovation and relied on it to talk strategy with McClellan, Meade, or Grant.) By 1880 there already almost 48,000 telephones in the United States; that number would nearly triple just a year later. Its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, has a part in this tale.
The Republican Party wasn’t the same either. A week after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln was dead, replaced by grim Tennessean Andrew Johnson, who turned out to have far more sympathy for the rights of defeated rebels than the fates of millions of freedmen left to the sometimes vengeful “mercy” of their former masters. And Johnson had to contend with a Congress of “Radical Republicans” no longer tempered by Lincoln’s moderation. Impeachment failed, but soon Johnson was replaced by the great hero Ulysses Grant, who had the best of intentions but in the end made for a far better general than president. As time went on, Republicans cooled towards civil rights, and drifted into a rigid factionalism that saw few policy differences but was marked by an addiction to power and privilege fueled by corruption. That was the state of the party when Garfield won the White House, but to his credit in his very short tenure he took great strides towards crippling the power of the most corrupt faction in Congress, while asserting executive independence.
Garfield was a bright, amiable character, well-regarded by most, whose politics mostly chased consensus, and whose life’s trajectory bore some strange if uneven parallels to Lincoln’s. Each were born to poverty in a log cabin and were in their youths brilliant autodidacts, although unlike Lincoln, Garfield was to go on to formal education. Both had strong antislavery convictions, and during the Lincoln Administration, Garfield took the field as a major general before going on to the House of Representatives. But while prior to his presidency Lincoln had just a single term in Congress, Garfield served for nine terms, while also finding the time to practice law and publish a mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem! Both could be said to be “dark horse” candidates in their respective tries for the Republican Party’s nomination, but Garfield’s horse was far darker, so to speak: in 1860, Lincoln was everyone’s second choice; in 1880, Garfield was no one’s choice, not even his own, but was nevertheless nominated on the thirty-sixth ballot. Finally, in a truly odd coincidence, not only did each die by assassin, but Lincoln’s son Robert, who once sat at his father’s deathbed, happened to be walking towards Garfield when he was shot! For her part, Millard does not dwell much on Garfield’s life, nor does she need to; it is rather his long drawn out death that is the focus of Destiny of the Republic.
On the other hand, many pages are given to another main character, the unlikely assassin Charles J. Guiteau, who stalked Garfield at a distance for an extended period of time before gunning him down at a railroad station on July 2, 1881. Guiteau, likely insane, was overcome with visions of grandeur that had him convinced that he was personally responsible for Garfield’s election and thus deserved the Paris consulship as a reward. Prior to this, Guiteau had tried his hand in a number of avenues in life, including law, theology, bill collecting, and utopianism, only to fail spectacularly in each. Virtually homeless, he stayed at a series of boarding houses and fled when the bills came due. When it finally sunk in that Garfield—who was of course unaware of Guiteau’s mad fantasies—would deny him the grand recognition he believed himself due, he persuaded himself that the president was instead a villain who must be murdered for the good of the country. Guiteau’s lack of competence in every arena remained consistent with assassination, as well: pistol shots fired point-blank at Garfield’s back yet missed his spine and all major organs.
This is when the story really gets interesting, for based upon the extent of his injuries, according to most modern appraisals Garfield should have recovered. Why he ultimately does not survive, and how heroically he endured persistent, agonizing pain for the eleven weeks of life that remained to him—while doctors fed the nation wildly inaccurate reports of his alleged recovery—is the central theme of this book. It is a tribute to Millard’s talent with a pen that the reader truly winces along with Garfield throughout his suffering.
More than anything else, Garfield was the victim of a medical community that did not yet believe in the existence of invisible germs. Much of Europe had adopted Joseph Lister’s antiseptic methods, which were mostly belittled in the United States. Thus, multiple doctors on multiple occasions inserted unwashed fingers into the wound site, probing for a bullet which could not be located. Ironically, this bullet which had skirted all critical internal targets was now essentially harmless. Following a duel, Andrew Jackson had lived another thirty-nine years with a spent bullet lodged just two inches from his heart. Numerous Civil War veterans of both armies carried bullets in various parts of their bodies for the remainder of their lives. But, unfortunately for Garfield, in the search for the missing bullet, one of those unwashed fingers introduced an aggressive infection that slowly and painfully killed him despite numerous attempts to save his life.
From the start, Garfield’s torment was exacerbated by his own doctor—actually his entire medical team—who naively waxed optimistic over his eventual recovery while stubbornly seeking the bullet that no longer posed a threat. One of these attempts involved the now celebrated Alexander Graham Bell, who had pioneered a prototype for the first metal detector that in this case promised the perfect marriage of technology and medicine, yet proved to be an epic fail that puzzled the renowned inventor and sent him back to the drawing board more than once. Only later did it emerge that the mattress of Garfield’s sickbed was constructed of internal metal springs that drove the detector’s sensors off the charts.
Meanwhile, as Garfield lingered, the entire country held its breath. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, the population of the United States stood at just thirty-one million. In 1880, it was more than fifty million, swelled by immigration. And it was far more networked than ever before with transcontinental railroads, the telegraph, and Bell’s telephone, so that communication was now near instant, at least in more populated regions. News of Garfield’s “progress” was broadcast daily, and crowds gathered around public bulletin boards hungry for updates. Much of it was misleading. The president was dying. Since his doctors could not acknowledge that to themselves, it is perhaps less surprising that they could not say it out loud. On September 19, James A. Garfield was no more. The author succeeds brilliantly in recreating the America of 1881 that daily watched breathlessly until Garfield breathed no more.
Millard, who is not a trained historian, puts many seasoned academics to shame by combining meticulous research with a gift for compelling prose that grips the reader from the first paragraph to the final pages. Her first book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, won national acclaim for its appeal to both a popular and a scholarly audience. Its success was closely rivaled by the more recent Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill. For her readers, it is perhaps no surprise that Destiny of the Republic earns similar accolades. Like many other terrific books that I purchase and set aside for later consumption, this one sat on my shelves for many years. I eventually turned to it just after closing the cover of another author’s biography of Garfield that succeeded masterfully in its study of the man but was marred by a too superficial treatment of his era. Millard proved the perfect remedy! For fans of American history: do not skip this one.

My review of: Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard

My review of: President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier, by C.W. Goodyear

The latest book review & podcast! Review of: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard – Regarp Book Blog https://regarp.com/2024/06/02/review-of-destiny-of-the-republic-a-tale-of-madnes... ( )
  Garp83 | Jun 2, 2024 |
"I never meet a ragged boy in the street without feeling that I may owe him a salute, for I know not what possibilities may be buttoned up under his coat." James A. Garfield

Without a doubt, "Destiny of the Republic" is one of the most interesting and thought provoking non-fiction books I've read in quite some time. Author Candice Millard does an extraordinary job of enlightening readers about the life of James A. Garfield, and the political, scientific, and medical theories and practices of the day.

Garfield is one of those Presidents that many Americans (including me prior to reading this book) just don't know much about. Most probably don't even recall that he is one of the four sitting Presidents who have been assassinated. Millard introduces us to this remarkable man.

Born into absolute poverty (he didn't own a pair of shoes until he was 4 years old), Garfield did have the advantage of being born into a family which gave him love, and showed him the value of education and hard work -- values he would hold through his entire life.

It's history book, so there are lots of names and dates, but Millard makes the story come alive (I would say it's nearly a page-turner!) as she leads us though Garfield's life as a student, Civil War General, and politician. During the extremely contentious Republican Convention of 1880, after many days of casting ballots for the Party's Presidential candidate, Garfield would emerge as the nominee -- surprising everyone, including himself. "This honor comes to be unsought. I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day." (James Garfield)

After only four months in office, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a mentally unstable man who had been trying to receive a political appointment from Garfield.

History, medicine, and science all have an interesting, and tragic, collision here. While the gunshot wounds harmed Garfield, had proper medical procedures been followed, he almost certainly would have survived. What killed Garfield was not the gunshot, but the raging infection caused by unsanitary medical practices coupled with the arrogance and hubris of his doctor. Sadly, Garfield died from infection 2 1/2 months after he was shot.

Nearly 20 years prior to Garfield's shooting, Dr. Charles Lister of England had developed a theory about germs and the necessity of sterilization in medical procedures. He would use carbolic acid to sterilize his medical tools, and was fastidious about only allowing sterilized tools to be used in surgery. He presented his research throughout Europe (where sterilization was largely adopted) and at Expos throughout the U.S. Unfortunately, most doctors and scientists in the U.S. utterly dismissed Lister's claims and thought it "ridiculous" that there were "invisible germs" in the air that humans needed to protect themselves from.

Garfield's doctor, Dr. Charles Bliss, not only ignored advice about sterilization, but refused the advice of other doctors and scientists who wanted to help Garfield's recovery. Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell even tried to aid in Garfield's recovery by inventing an "induction balance" machine to locate the missing bullet which was still lodged in Garfield's body. However, Dr. Bliss was so arrogantly stubborn he only allowed Bell to search one small part of Garfield's body for the missing bullet -- the side where Bliss was sure the bullet must be lodged. The autopsy revealed that the bullet was located on the opposite side of Garfield's body and had never damaged any organs.

Garfield came to office at a time when the U.S. was still healing from the Civil War. Millard describes him as a man of integrity who truly was a unifier -- the first post-war President who had the support of the entire U.S. (even though he was a Union General and a life-long abolitionist) In his short time in office he tried to do away with the Spoils System (where political jobs were handed out as political favors) and move to a merit-based system. Personally, he had qualities which are admirable. Even as his lay dying, he remained "kind, patient, cheerful, and deeply grateful."

When I read history, I can't help of think both of what has changed and what hasn't changed. It's easy to see the advances in transportation, telecommunications, and medicine. But some things stubbornly refuse to change. In 1881 Charles Guiteau, a man who was clearly mentally unhinged and who had an extensive criminal record, had unfettered access to go and buy a gun. In 2016, with few exceptions, that is still the same case.

In the mid 1800s, Charles Lister brought forth theories based on scientific evidence and proof -- and was mocked. Irreparable damage was done in the process. The same thing happens today when people don't want to admit what is right in front of their eyes (climate change, anyone?) When Lister finally saw his ideas not only "vindicated, but venerated" he said "I regard all worldly distinctions as nothing in comparison with the hope that I may have been the means of reducing in some degree the sum of human misery."

5 solid stars AND I look forward to reading more by Candice Millard
( )
  jj24 | May 27, 2024 |

Candice Millard - Destiny of the Republic: Always live in the future. Also, +1 to the Secret Service and -1 to the spoils system. #cursorybookreviews #cursoryreviews ( )
  khage | Apr 3, 2024 |
(2011)Non-fiction. Very good telling of the events leading up to the shooting of President James Garfield and the subsequent botched treatment by over-zealous and ignorant medical practitioners which eventually led to the death and assassination of a vigorous and very likely what would have been one of the greatest presidents ever.From book cover:James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back. But the shot didn't kill Garfield. The drama of what hap pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur moil. The unhinged assassin's half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for powerover his administration, over the nation's future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. As his con dition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet.
  derailer | Jan 25, 2024 |
This author draws the reader into wonderful historical worlds that come alive on the page. Once again, she takes what can be pretty standard facts and weaves a spellbinding yarn that causes even a non-history lover like me to swoon. James Garfield, who is elected president against his wishes, the Scot inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the British surgeon Joseph Lister, toadie-turned-president Chester A. Arthur, a crazy gun-wielder who definitely needed a background check, and a cast of nefarious politicians come together during a crisis in our political history. The epilogue details the remarkable fallout from this period of time. Can't wait for her next book! ( )
  jemisonreads | Jan 22, 2024 |
Mostrando 1-5 de 156 (seguinte | mostrar todas)
In both of the books she has written about American presidents, Candice Millard has zeroed in on events that other historians largely overlook. Her first book, “The River of Doubt,” followed Theodore Roosevelt’s strenuous efforts to regain his confidence after his failed 1912 third-party bid for re-election and described his near-disastrous journey down the Amazon tributary of the title. The details of this trip were hardly unknown, but they were easily overshadowed by other aspects of Roosevelt’s hugely eventful life. Ms. Millard turned a relative footnote into a newly mesmerizing story.

Now she has chosen an even more neglected and fascinating subject: the 1881 assassination attempt on President James A. Garfield and the dreadfully misguided medical efforts to save his life. Had it not been for this botched treatment, Ms. Millard contends, Garfield would have been one more Civil War veteran walking around with a bullet lodged inside him. Had he survived to serve more than 200 days in office, he might have been much more familiar than he is to many students of White House history.

“Destiny of the Republic,” which takes its title from a fateful speech given by Garfield at the 1880 Republican National Convention, has a much bigger scope than the events surrounding Garfield’s slow, lingering death. It is the haunting tale of how a man who never meant to seek the presidency found himself swept into the White House. It rediscovers Garfield’s more surprising accomplishments. He was, among other things, a teenage worker on the Erie and Ohio canals, a brigadier general and a scholar who devised an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem at some point during the 17 years he spent in Congress.

Garfield’s transformative effect on the contentious 1880 Republican convention put an end to all that. (Kenneth D. Ackerman’s “Dark Horse” gives a full account of the convention.) At an exhausting point when more than 30 ballots had been cast, Garfield rose to speak out against the chaotic “human ocean in tempest” he was witnessing. He injected a voice of reason. “I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man,” he said. “But I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured.”

Delegates began unexpectedly throwing their votes to Garfield. He had not been a presidential candidate; now suddenly he was the Republican nominee. When he and his family were swept into the White House, Garfield wrote: “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?”

Garfield particularly bristled at the calling hours a president then traditionally kept. During this time he met members of the public, many of them office seekers. He quickly noticed a particularly obnoxious visitor: Charles Guiteau, whose pestering was so extreme that Garfield cited him as an “illustration of unparalleled audacity and impudence.” The grandiose and frankly creepy Guiteau wrote so many letters that he became enough of a nuisance to be noticed by other members of the Garfield administration and family. A former lawyer and theologist who earned himself the nickname “Charles Gitout,” he met Garfield on numerous occasions before deciding to shoot him.

Guiteau, whose story has also been much overlooked, made no secret of his plotting. In a letter explaining his plans to the American people, he reasoned: “It will be no worse for Mrs. Garfield, to part with her husband this way, than by natural death. He is liable to go at any time any way.” He scouted jails, deciding where he wanted to be incarcerated. He left instructions (“please order out your troops”) for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who would be marshalling troops for Guiteau. They protected the assassin from being killed by a mob before he could go to trial.

“Destiny of the Republic” pursues many threads at first, including the political spoils system exploited by Senator Roscoe Conkling (who forced Chester A. Arthur on Garfield as a vice president); Alexander Graham Bell’s experiments with induction balance; and Joseph Lister’s much-mocked claims that antisepsis was crucial in warding off infection. And then midway through the book these elements converge in Ms. Millard’s gripping account of Guiteau’s attack. After Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac train station on July 2, 1881, doctors egregiously probed Garfield with hands and instruments, none sterilized. The president’s fever, vomiting and signs of infection were taken as evidence that his body was trying to heal.

The medics explored the wrong side of Garfield’s torso — and under the orders of the senior presiding doctor, D. Willard Bliss, only the wrong side — in efforts to find and remove the foreign body. In one of the many stunning moments that Ms. Millard describes, Bell was allowed to use his method of metal detection only on the bullet-free side of the president and was baffled by the faint, inconclusive noises that his test produced. It would be discovered, too late, that the sounds had come from metal bedsprings in the mattress beneath Garfield.

“His ultimate place in history will be far less exalted than that which he now holds in popular estimation,” The New York Times wrote after Garfield died. This book rebuts that claim. It restores Garfield’s eloquent voice, his great bravery and his strong-willed if not particularly presidential nature. Ms. Millard shows the Garfield legacy to be much more important than most of her readers knew it to be.
adicionado por PLReader | editarNY Times, JANET MASLIN (Sep 11, 2011)

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Nome do autorFunçãoTipo de autorObra?Status
Candice Millardautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Michael, PaulNarradorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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For my parents, Lawrence and Constance Millard, on their fiftieth wedding anniversary
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(Prologue) Crossing the Long Island Sound in dense fog just before midnight on the night of June 11, 1880, the passengers and crew of the steamship Stonington found themselves wrapped in impenetrable blackness.
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As cries of "Catch him!" echoed through the train station, Guiteau's face "blanched like that of a corpse," the Venezuelan chargé d'affaires, Camacho, would remember.
Of course I did deprecate war, but if it is brought to my door, the bringer will find me at home. - James A. Garfield
Throughout the nation and around the world, President James Garfield's extraordinary rise from fatherlessness and poverty would make him the embodiment of the American dream. Garfield himself, however, refused ever to romanticize his childhood. "Let us never praise poverty, for a child at least.
If I ever get through a course of study I don't expect anyone will ask me what kind of coat I wore when studying, and if they do I shall not be ashamed to tell them it was a ragged one. - James A. Garfield
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A narrative account of the twentieth president's political career offers insight into his background as a scholar and Civil War hero, his battles against the corrupt establishment, and Alexander Graham Bell's failed attempt to save him from an assassin's bullet.

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