Wednesday, March 06, 2013

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

I finished reading the Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. I stumbled across the book while surfing on Amazon in December. It wasn't until I started reading the book that I realized the author had also written The River of Doubt. The River of Doubt is one of my favorite books!

I brought the book as part of my effort to read about all of the United States Presidents. Destiny of the Republic is the story of James Garfield, the 20th President. President Garfield had a mere four months to establish his presidency before he was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged political office seeker, on July 2, 1881. Garfield died after 80 days of suffering.

Raised in poverty in Ohio, Garfield was a remarkable individual. A passionate abolitionist, Garfield was not only hailed a hero in the Civil War, but was a fierce champion of the rights of freed slaves. At the same time, he was a supremely gifted scholar who had become a university president at just 26 years of age, and, while in Congress, wrote an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. The Republicans ended up choosing him as their candidate in 1880 primarily because they couldn't agree between former President Grant, James G. Blaine, and John Sherman. The delegates chose Garfield as a compromise choice.

In addition to providing an overview of Garfield, the book weaves in two other plots. First, Alexander Graham Bell plays a prominent part in the story. The book outlines his invention of the telephone. Bell's efforts to build an induction balance, a type of metal detector, to locate the bullet lodged in the President’s body play a major role in the last third of the book.

Second, the idea of antiseptic surgery is explored. At the time, American physicians were skeptical of the idea of the need for antiseptic procedures. As a result, their efforts to treat Garfield caused more problems than they solved. Garfield would likely have survived the shooting ten years later.

One of the odd coincidences highlighted in the book is that Robert Todd Lincoln was present when Garfield was shot. He was also at his father's death bed and standing with President McKinley when he was shot. Robert Todd Lincoln has the dubious distinction of being the only man to be present at three of the nation's four presidential assassinations.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it. Like The President and the Assassin, the book looks at the President in the context of the what else is going on in the country. I give the book a strong B+.

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