The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday, $27.95, 352 pages)
Imagine that you are in charge of making decisions for a major publisher. A writer presents you with a new novel based on the following story: A very young (49-year-old) President of the United States is elected and quickly stalked by a madman. The president serves only 6 months before he is shot by this crazy person. As the shooting takes place, one of the men standing alongside the president has been present at three presidential assassinations (although he is in no way connected to the assassins). The physician in charge of saving the president cannot locate the bullet in the president’s body, and turns to a world-famous inventor for his assistance in creating a new machine that will find it. Despite their best efforts, the president does not survive and the vice-president – a political hack who is against everything the former president stood for – assumes office. This new leader throws aside his former supporters, and proceeds to fully implement the dead president’s political agenda.
No doubt you would reject this fictional tale as being beyond the bounds of believability. And you might be right, except for the fact that this all, in fact, occurred in 1880. As documented in The Destiny of the Republic, one truly fascinating account of the events surrounding the assassination of President James A. Garfield, and the assumption of the high office by Chester A. Arthur, these events happened. The genius inventor who attempted to save the life of the president (in the days before x-rays) was Alexander Graham Bell. The witness to Garfield’s assassination was Robert Todd Lincoln, “…the only man to be present at three of our nation’s four presidential assassinations.” And President Arthur, a product of the New York State spoils (political patronage) sytem, was to be the man who enacted civil service reform. Arthur came to be known as the Father of Civil Service, a title that would likely have been Garfield’s, had he survived being shot.
“Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning, and it is best not to worry about either.” James A. Garfield
This is a detailed and moving version of the events surrounding the life and death of James Garfield of Ohio, a man who was very much in love with his wife; a woman who nearly preceded him in death. Garfield was to die, not from the bullet that lay harmlessly encased in body fat within his frame, but from medical malpractice and incompetence. In modern times Garfield, like President Reagan, would have survived his injuries and returned to the White House.
Garfield turned to the doctors closest to him, and asked what chance he had of surviving. “One chance in a hundred,” the doctor gravely replied. “We will take that chance, doctor,” Garfield said, “and make good use of it.”
The reader will come to see that Garfield was a very courageous man who suffered at the hands of a medical team that hastened his death. Alexander Graham Bell and Chester Arthur also come to life as fascinating characters; Bell as an imperfect but well-meaning genius, and Arthur as a man who reluctantly but boldly grew into the role that destiny selected for him. (Arthur was not born to greatness, but grew into it when the nation desperately needed a leader to fill Garfield’s very large shoes.)
This true story is very cinematic in nature and might well make for an excellent film filled with multiple larger-than-life characters. Thanks to Candice Millard, it is a story that will not longer be a blip in the history of the United States. If you know of a young person who is interested in reading about the history of our country, consider presenting this book to him or her as a very valuable present.
A review copy was received from the publisher. The Destiny of the Republic will be released on September 20, 2011. “What an exceptional man and what an exciting era Millard has brought to elegant life on the page! After reading The Destiny of the Republic, you’ll never think of James A. Garfield as a ‘minor’ president again.” Hampton Sides, author of Hellbound on His Trail