The Destiny of the Republic has one of those subtitles that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the book: “A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of the President.” The Madness is provided by Charles Guiteau, a delusional man with a monstrous self-regard who believed God wanted him to kill President James Garfield. The Medicine is perhaps the most intriguing yet tragic part of the book, as Joseph Lister’s antiseptic theories of surgery, still controversial and widely dismissed in 1880, would have saved Garfield’s life had they been used. (Instead, doctors literally poked their hands into Garfield’s wound, “causing a small hemorrhage and almost certainly introducing an infection that was far more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet,” as Candice Millard writes.) The Murder of the President is, of course, what Guiteau did to Garfield, our nation’s twentieth president, who occupied the White House for a mere two hundred days but will never fade into the oblivion of being a forgotten president after you read this account.
The Destiny of the Republic is, in other words, the kind of history book that even readers who don’t think they like history will love. It is fast-paced, fascinatingly told, and brings Garfield vividly to life. Born into poverty, Garfield lost his father before he was two years old. Through manual labor he earned enough money to pay for his education, which quickly elevated him to become an Ohio state senator in 1859. An abolitionist, Garfield was a Major General for the Union Army in the Civil War, fighting at Shiloh and Chickamauga.
What is remarkable about Garfield’s ascent to the Presidency is that he did not even seek it. During the 1880 Republican convention, Garfield nominated and supported his fellow Ohioan John Sherman for the Republican nomination. After thirty-three ballots stretching over two days, during which Ulysses S. Grant and James Blaine jostled for but could not obtain the 379 votes needed to win, Garfield suddenly became a candidate when states began nominating him despite his protests. By the thirty-seventh ballot, Garfield had won the nomination. “Having never agreed to become even a candidate — on the contrary, having vigorously resisted it,” Millard writes, “he was suddenly the nominee.”
Garfield went on to defeat Winfield Hancock in the general election and was inaugurated as President on March 4, 1881. During his first months in office, Guiteau was among the office seekers who came to the White House to petition Garfield and his one overworked secretary for a position in his administration. He even, on one occasion, attended a White House reception and introduced himself to Garfield’s wife, Lucretia. Guiteau told her he was “‘one of the men that made Mr. Garfield President” and left her with his card, “determined that she would not forget him.”
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, though just sixteen years earlier, was chalked up to the Civil War rather than the fact Lincoln was President. There was shockingly little protection for the President in those days. There was no Secret Service, and would not be until after President McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Garfield’s daughter even walked to school by herself. When Garfield entered the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station on July 2, 1881, Guiteau was there to meet him, shooting him twice before being apprehended.
As awful as that event was, the medical care Garfield was to receive over the coming months was even worse. As Millard writes,
Had Garfield been shot just fifteen years later, the bullet in his back would have been quickly found by X-ray images, and the wound treated with antiseptic surgery. He might have been back on his feet within weeks. Had he been able to receive modern medical care, he likely would have spent no more than a few nights in the hospital. Even had Garfield been left alone, he almost certainly would have survived.
That he didn’t makes the book’s final hundred pages excruciating, as the nation watched its president languish for over two months before finally passing away.
Millard, whose first book was the superb The River of Doubt, is a meticulous researcher and gifted storyteller. “What has survived of Garfield, however, is far more powerful than a portrait, a statue,” she writes in the Epilogue. “Garfield’s long illness and painful death brought the country together in a way that, even the day before the assassination attempt, had seemed to most Americans impossible.” The wounds of the Civil War were still fresh in 1881, but “the day Garfield’s death was announced … his countrymen mourned not as northerners or southerners, but as Americans.”