Destiny of the Republic, A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President – By Candice Millard

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

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

This book covers the life and death of James Garfield, the 20th President of the United States. Most people would assume that a book about the assassination of a president would be predominately about the president. However, this book gives you a great 30,000-foot view of Garfield and the various individuals involved with his assassination and his subsequent medical care.

The first half of the book covers the life of James Garfield and Charles Guiteau leading up to the fateful day of July 2, 1881. There is also a little character development of Alexander Graham Bell and Doctor Willard Bliss. The second half of the book covers the 2.5 months after Garfield was shot.

James Garfield lost his father at a very young age. His mother and older brother worked extremely hard to make sure Garfield obtained the best schooling possible. Garfield decided that he would rather work on a canal boat than go to school One night while he was on the deck, he fell overboard. As Garfield thrashed around in the water, he felt a rope. Garfield pulled against the rope and he was able to get back aboard. When Garfield examined the rope on deck, he found that it had somehow caught between two boards thus enabling him to pull himself back.

After this near death experience, Garfield quit his job and went back home. When he reached the front porch of his mother’s home, he could hear his mother praying. His mother was praying for her wayward son and asking God to bring her son home. That night there was a young man who understood the power of a mother’s prayers.


Garfield went back to school where he developed a reputation of being a great debater. In 1859, at 28 years-old, Garfield was elected as Ohio State Senator. Garfield did not seek the office, but his neighbors had asked him to run when his predecessor retired.

As the result of him being an elected leader, Garfield was made an officer in the Union army and was tasked with driving the Confederates forces out of Kentucky. Garfield diligently studied the maps and came up with a plan to attack the Confederate forces so that they thought his inferior force was a superior force. Garfield’s plan worked and he soon found himself promoted to brigadier general.

In 1862, Garfield was elected to Congress. Garfield was going to decline to be a Congressman so that he could continue leading his men. However, Lincoln told Garfield that a Congressman who had fought in the war and understood the needs of the men could do more good in DC advocating on behalf of the military. Garfield acquiesced and he soon moved to DC.

In 1880, Garfield attended the Republican convention. There was a three-way battle that year for the Republican nomination. The Republican party was split into two major factions. One faction was the stalwarts. Stalwarts were traditional republicans who opposed civil service reforms. The other faction was split between James Blaine and John Sherman, brother of William Tecumseh Sherman.

Garfield had agreed to support John Sherman. Sherman had asked and Garfield had agreed to nominate Sherman for the Republican nomination. However, even before Garfield gave his nomination speech, there was pressure on Garfield to agree to be nominated. Garfield continually attempted to communicate to Republicans that he was there to support Sherman and that he had no desire to be President of the United States.

There was a huge deadlock and it was clear that it was going to be a long convention. By the fourth ballot, a lone delegate decided that he was going to cast his vote for Garfield. This delegate was the lone voice for Garfield through the first day of ballots. It was early on the second day when a block of delegates decided to change their vote to Garfield (who you must remember was never nominated from the floor as an actual candidate). Garfield tried to object to these delegates voting for him because he had not agreed that he would be willing to run. The Chairman, who secretly wanted Garfield to run, ruled that Garfield was out of order.


All of a sudden, there was a major shift as people started changing their votes for Garfield. By the 36th ballot on the 2nd day, Garfield was declared the winner and the Republican nominee for the office of President of the United States.

For Garfield, the months leading up to the election were some of his favorites. Because Presidents did not go out and actively campaign, he went home to his cabin and spent a lot of time with his wife and his children. One of his favorite activities was teaching his children the sciences. Every day a throng of people would show up at his front porch and Garfield would go out and give a short speech about what he would do as president. Groups of supporters came from near and far to hear Garfield speak.

In November, the vote ended up being very close, even though Garfield’s opponent had never held elected office. Garfield won the presidency by approximately 2,000 votes. Both Garfield and Winfield Hancock won 19 states. The states won by Garfield, however, had 59 more electoral delegates than those carried by Hancock.

The author of this book took a lot of time going through the history of Charles Guiteau. Needless to say, Charles Guiteau was a deranged scumbag who had a higher esteem of himself than was healthy. Guiteau at a young age had joined a religious sect that believed in group marriages. Basically, every woman in the sect belonged to every man. However, the women did not like Guiteau and he was rejected by most of the members in the sect.

After Guiteau had left the sect, he traveled around the country jumping from one get rich scheme to the next. He tried his hand at being a lawyer, traveling evangelist, and real estate developer. Guiteau was renowned for coming into a town, telling people he was about to receive a large check and that he would pay them for room and board at the end of the week. On the morning he had promised to pay, Guiteau would be long gone. Guiteau would also borrow money from friends and family, never paying any of the money back.

For some reason, Guiteau had the misguided notion that he should be the ambassador to France. He felt that a short speech he gave to a small group of Republicans in New York entitled him to this position. Once Garfield had won, Guiteau started harassing everyone in DC trying to get the job. In fact, prior to being sworn into office, Garfield read a letter by Guiteau and Garfield replied that this letter is a prime exhibit of the reason why there needed to be civil service reform. Garfield really hated the current system of doling out federal jobs as he felt that the most qualified person rarely would be put into the position to serve the people.


Guiteau did not only actively attempt to get Garfield to appoint him. He would go around to Senators and say he had spoken with Garfield and that he needed their endorsement to get the desired position. Guiteau was never afraid to drop important individual’s names if he thought it would help him. All this time, he was bouncing around boarding houses telling his landlords that he was about to be nominated as an ambassador.

One day, Guiteau decided that he had heard from God and that God had told him that he was supposed to kill the president so that Chester Author would become President. It was from that day forward that Guiteau started making his plans to assassinate the president. There were at least two prior attempts by Guiteau where he got cold feet before the fateful day.

Finally, on July 2, 1881, at the train station, Guiteau put two bullets into Garfield. It is well documented that had the medical profession done nothing, Garfield would have lived with the wounds he had received. However, Garfield’s doctors refused to follow the medical standards practiced at that time in Europe regarding bacteria. Instead, Garfield’s doctors proceeded to treat Garfield with the hope of fame and glory that their hard work would heal the president.

It was sad while reading this book to learn all the mistakes made by the medical profession. Had Garfield been a poor popper, he would have made a quick recovery. However, because every doctor wanted to stick his hand into the wound to try to find the bullet to remove it, they introduced germs into the bloodstream of Garfield that after 2.5 months these germs eventually killed him.

One of the interesting tidbits from the assignation and mishandling of Garfield’s medical care is that Alexander Graham Bell used this to help create the invention that led to the invention of the X-Ray. Bell understood that doctors were having a hard time finding the bullet and as such, he used his knowledge to try to invent a device to detect the bullet. However, due to technical problems with the new device and Garfield’s doctor prohibiting Bell to use the device anywhere other than where the doctor said that the bullet was supposed to be, Bell was unable to find the bullet.

Guiteau was tried for murdering the president and he had two defenses. His first defense is that he was insane and his second defense was that according to the president’s autopsy, it was the doctors who killed Garfield. The jury very quickly reached a verdict of guilty and Guiteau was hung shortly after his appeal to the Supreme Court was denied.

I strongly encourage anyone to read this book who is interested in a quick review of Garfield’s life and the history of his assassin and the process that eventually killed the president. If you want a detailed biography of Garfield, this book is probably not the best book to read.

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