In Destiny of the Republic Candice Millard has composed a work of non-fiction on the assassination  of the nation’s 20th president, James Garfield.  In a book that reads like a historical novel, Millard weaves the  true story of a man who never sought the presidency,  but accepted the Republican nomination in 1880 with a sense of responsibility to the nation. 

Garfield, born into abject poverty, was the last of the  “log cabin” presidents. He came into office at a time when the nation sorely needed a person with the vision to bring the country together and move on from the lingering tragedy of the Civil War’s division. Garfield rose to that challenge and was welcomed by the citizenry as a healer.

Millard carefully combines the promise of the Garfield presidency with the tragedy of  the bullet of  deranged assassin Charles Guiteau that left Garfield clinging to life over four months. The author uncovers the fear of Vice President Chester Arthur, placed in that position by New York power broker Roscoe Conkling, who after Garfield’s death sought to return to the levers of power through Arthur.  You will discover a positive turn of hand in this relationship.

Destiny of the Republic also exposes the ignorance within the country’s medical community by it’s refusal to adopt the standards of modern antiseptic medicine developed in England by Joseph Lister. Tragically, Garfield did not die from Guiteu’s gunshot wound but rather from infection caused by the ignorance and ego of Dr. D. Willard Bliss, who’s unclean hands and instruments  along with his enormous ego, caused the deadly infection that killed Garfield.  Millard tells the story of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and admirer of Garfield, trying desperately to develop an instrument to find the bullet in Garfield’s body.

Yes, it reads like a novel, but every word is true ,including the revelation of the little known fact that Todd Lincoln was the only person present at the death of three of the four assassinated American presidents, his father,  Garfield and McKinley.  

I believe that Pulitzer Prize winning author  Debby Applegate  who wrote The Most Famous Man in America correctly summarizes  Destiny of the Republic in her dust cover quote, ” Candice Millard has rediscovered one of the great forgotten stories in American history. Millard has turned Garfield’s story into a crackling tale of suspense and a panoramic picture of a fascinating but forgotten era.”

Millard also wrote River of Doubt which was named best book of the year by the New York Times Book Review in 2006. River of Doubt is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s journey into an uncharted part of the Amazon. For you Roosevelt fans, this is another great recommendation to add to the Roosevelt postings on Gordon’s Good Reads.


  1. Pingback: President Garfield’s Assassin: Charles Guiteau’s Time in Washington « Ghosts of DC

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