When a writer can bring historical characters to life, give the reader a sense of what issues and emotions motivated their choices, it’s something truly special, a chance for readers to experience another time and place. Candice Millard does just that with Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.
The year is 1880, and the central character is James Garfield, one of the most able men ever elected to the Presidency of the United States. Millard brings the Republican convention to life, showing us an election very different from those we know. Garfield gives a nomination speech for fellow Ohioan John Sherman so effective that when finishes, the crowd chants his name instead of Sherman’s. As ballot after ballot is deadlocked between Sherman and Ulysses Grant, Garfield’s name is slipped–against his objections–into the nominations as a compromise. The popularity of the choice snowballs, and a few ballots later, Garfield is the Republican nominee, earning him the enmity of a powerful man, Roscoe Conkling, who backed Grant and ran the New York political machine. In an era when it was considered mildly distasteful to stump for oneself, Garfield stayed home in Ohio, gave a few speeches, and soon found himself a reluctant 20th President.
Garfield’s foil is the delusional Charles Guiteau, a former resident of the utopian Oneida Community. A failed journalist, lawyer, author, and traveling evangelist, Guiteau never stopped believing he was destined for great things, even though he spent most of his life skipping out on the rent at one boarding house after another. When he survived a horrible crash of two paddle-wheel steamers in the Long Island Sound, he was more convinced than ever that God had a great plan for him. Unfortunately for Garfield, his interest fell next to politics. After campaigning for Garfield in ways that nobody noticed but himself, Guiteau was convinced that Garfield owed him an important position in his administration. He became a regular at the new White House, campaigning for appointment as an ambassadorship in Europe. When he was finally kicked out, he came to the deranged conclusion that God wanted him to assassinate the President. His delusion would end the Garfield Presidency after only six months in 1881.
These are just the initial events in a fascinating tale that most Americans don’t know. The story expands to include the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell, the failure of American medicine to understand the important advancements in hygiene pioneered by Charles Lister, the political wrangling between Conkling, Garfield, and the unlikely Vice President Chester Arthur, and Garfield’s intimates, especially wife Lucretia and his young secretary Joseph Stanley-Brown. There’s so much to captivate the reader in this fast-moving story. You’ll be boggled as the crazy Guiteau gets easy access to Garfield in an era when the President could walk down the street without harassment. You’ll grimace as a team of clueless doctors seem to do everything possible to introduce further infection into the slowly dying President. You’ll wonder at what we lost in Garfield, a great man who makes most contemporary Presidents look like much lesser creatures.
If you enjoy the historical writing of people like Erik Larson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Nathaniel Philbrick, Barbara Tuchman, or Sarah Vowell, you need to add Millard to your list of must-read authors.