Historical nonfiction can be so good when the subject is interesting and the author is talented. Destiny of the Republic has both things going for it. This book about President James Garfield’s life and assassination is engrossing and devastating.
I read Destiny of the Republic as part of the 2020 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. February’s challenge was to read a biography of a US President, since Presidents Day is in February. This one caught my eye not only because a blog reader recommended it (thanks, Mark!), but also because it’s a manageable 432 pages. Many of the leading Presidential biographies are around 1000 pages and likely go into deeper detail than Destiny of the Republic does. While Destiny of the Republic focuses in depth on Garfield’s assassination, it does cover, at a high level, information from his entire life, so we get a very good idea of the type of man he was. I found it just the right level of detail.
James Garfield was the 20th President of the United States, elected in 1880. But he was a lot more than that. His accomplishments included:
– Overcoming extreme poverty
– Becoming the head of a higher education institution at 25
– Distinguished service as a Brigadier General in the Union Army
– Outspoken abolitionist
– Accomplished scholar and mathematician
– Skilled orator
– Sported a beard that would make today’s hipsters envious
On top of that, he seemed like a genuinely good man – warm, thoughtful, honest, principled, a good friend and a devoted family man – the kind of guy you’d like in the White House. I didn’t know this about Garfield. Is it weird that I developed a bit of a crush on a long-dead president?
It was interesting to read about the election process of the time and compare it to today. Candidates for the different parties were nominated at conventions – no primaries or caucuses. And once the candidates were identified, they didn’t campaign for the presidency because that was considered undignified. Isn’t that refreshing? The result of this process, however, was that Garfield was chosen to be the Republican party candidate, even though he never presented his name for consideration. In fact, he was appalled by the nomination. He didn’t want it.
At the same time we’re getting to know Garfield, Candice Millard also introduces Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph Lister, and Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, a delusional lunatic. Guiteau shot Garfield in a train station on July 2, 1881, but Garfield didn’t die until September 19. His doctors couldn’t find the bullet and so Bell frantically went about developing an early version of the metal detector. In the meantime, his doctors ignored Lister’s research on germs and the importance of disinfectants and proceeded to do hair-raising things like probing Garfield’s wound with their unwashed fingers and unclean medical instruments. In the end, Garfield actually died due to medical malpractice. His body couldn’t fight the infections introduced by his doctors. As for Guiteau, let’s just say he met his end in a much less painful way than Garfield.
Garfield’s story would have been pretty interesting on its own, but it would have been incomplete had the author not included these other elements for context. They added so much rich texture and brought home the fact that Garfield could have been saved. All the elements were there – if only he’d had a competent doctor to put them to use.
Such a good book! I highly recommend it!
Did you read about a US President this month? Please share!