Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

1st August 2012

*I bought this book.

A brief timeline of my history with this book:

  • October 2011: Texas Book Fest. Hear author speak. Vow to buy hardback.
  • October 2011: Remember I’m broke.
  • November 2011 – April 2012: Think about the two stories Millard told off and on.
  • July 26, 2012: Remember how much I want to read this book.
  • July 26, 2012: Find out paperback is out Thursday afternoon!
  • July 26, 2012: Buy paperback Thursday evening.
  • July 26, 30, 2012: Read book in two sittings.

It was a book craving, I tell you. I had no control over my actions. So just what about Millard’s story set me on this 9-month voyage to this book? Let me share:

If you’re anything like me, the name “Garfield” is more often used as a way to describe a fat orange cartoon cat, as opposed to a former president of the United States. He wasn’t in office long, and I thought that about wrapped it up. Far. From it.

Garfield became president unwillingly. Slated to introduce one of the possible Republican candidates, John Sherman, at the Republican National Convention of 1880, Garfield spoke with such passion and knowledge that when he asked the crowd what they wanted, they responded: “We want Garfield!” To say he was surprised is an understatement. He had no aspirations to the White House, but after the most tensely-written ballot counting I’ve ever read, Garfield surpassed every other candidate, even the very popular Ulysses S. Grant. And there was a reason for that. Intelligent, hardworking, and disarmingly honest, Garfield was well respected as a Union soldier and politician. He worked as a janitor his first year of college, was asked to teach his second year, and ascended to the college presidency by the time he was 26. This was no ordinary man.

At the same time, Millard introduces Alexander Graham Bell, a frenzied inventor who wanted nothing more than to make real advancements as a teacher of the deaf. Frightened that the telephone would take over his life, Bell worked feverishly on other projects until the president’s assassination, when his penetrating focus turned to a device to find the bullet in the president’s ravaged body – the bullet put there by Charles Guiteau. Garfield suffered terribly, and his death likely could have been avoided. Doctors at the time, though, were unwilling to listen to the advances of science, and Garfield died, his body riddled with abscesses.

Guiteau, too, is interesting, though a much less striking figure than either of the other men. Believing God had ordained him for something special, Guiteau flitted from a free-love colony (where none of the women were interested) to law school and then to a life of evangelism. None worked out well as Guiteau’s speeches and writing were very often hobbled together from others’ work. He regularly skipped out of boarding house bills and any other bills, putting enough money down to gain trust and then leaving the sum. His sister tried to institutionalize him, but Guiteau left town before she could get him to the doctor.

The intersection of these three men’s lives, however, is the real focus of and draw of Millard’s book. Destiny of the Republic isn’t intended to be a true biography of any of them. Instead, she sets the stage for the assassination. The United States was, at that time, built on the spoils system, and it was fascinating to read that hundreds of people poured into the White House day after day, requesting favors and positions from the president. Guiteau was one of them, believing that his previous support for Garfield won him the election and that he was owed a consulship. The audacity and the brazenness of Guiteau and others was shocking, as was the lack of official protection for a president, only a few decades after Lincoln was killed.

Though horrific, Garfield’s death, Millard says, was a healing balm to a nation still torn from war, drawing Northerner and Southerner as well as pioneer to pull together and hope and pray for Garfield’s survival. That unity is no more evident than when Garfield’s train made its way to the seashore, his last request before dying. Over 2,000 people laid train tracks, and a train car was modified for his comfort. When, however, the train could not make it up a hill, hundreds of men went to work, pushing the president’s train up the hill and to the place where he would eventually die. No matter how short his term, that is an inspiring politician.

Eminently readable and filled with well-crafted research, Destiny of the Republic is a must-read for anyone who enjoys true crime, historical fiction and/or nonfiction, and American history.

Check out other opinions on Goodreads. Buy your copy from Barnes & Noble here.

  • Jennifer Waggoner Hartling

    Oh yes! This is now firmly on my mental to-be-read pile! I adore history and presidential biographies…this is right up this girl’s alley! Thanks for reviewing it.

    • You are most welcome! Thank you for stopping by. If you like this sort of thing already, you are in for a treat. I’ve been talking it up to everyone. In fact, going to buy a couple more copies to pass out.

      • Jennifer Waggoner Hartling

        Great, then I’ll be hanging around here ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m having issues signing in to comment..not sure why it’s showing my maiden name AND my married name, lol. Sigh, the internet slays me at times!

        http://therelentlessreader.blogspot.com/

        • Oh no! Let me know if it keeps acting up. I’m definitely going to see if there’s something off with it. I don’t ever know unless someone tells me, so thanks!

  • heidenkind

    Wow-I never knew President Garfield was so interesting. This sounds like a fascinating book!

    • It so is! I never knew either, but much of this book blew me away. It’s a great read.

  • I’m sold. You made this book sound awesome Jenn. I think I’ve heard the story about Garfield’s last train ride, but I had no idea the events that led to that moment.

    • Yea! If I could make the nonfic queen want to read it, my job is done. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I had never heard that story, but wow. You know there’s got to be some respect there for that to happen. Between that and his unintended nomination, I was really blown away. I hope you enjoy it.

  • Senatorbrett

    I liked Candice Millard’s other book, “Garfield & Grant: The Unholy Union & The Gay Agenda It Spawned”. I think it’s only in limited press. Actually, I may have the only copy due to the fact that I made it up entirely!

    • You are so goofy! ๐Ÿ™‚ I do really want to get started on River of Doubt, her other book.

  • I LOVED this book. I didn’t know much about Garfield – like most people but since reading this there is a place in my heart for him and I so wish he had lived longer. I can’t wait to pick up her River of Doubt book! Great review.

    • I’m so glad you loved it so much. I did, too. The only reason I haven’t picked up River of Doubt is because I couldn’t find the paperback at the bookstore. Can’t wait to read it.