Destiny of the Republic Discussion Journal

From George Washington to Barrack Obama, forty-four men have served as president of the United States. Some names we recognize as founding fathers, others because DestinyOfTheRepublicCoverwe associate them with wars, the Great Depression, our hometowns, current events. None of us at the meeting knew much about President Garfield before reading Candice Millard’s book, Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. I barely remembered that he had been assassinated, let alone that he served less than six months before being shot and then lived for nearly three months before succumbing to an infection. We liked the book, found it easy to read and were impressed by President Garfield’s character and constitution. Although I found the depiction of President Garfield almost too saintly, we accepted the book’s accuracy because it has been well-reviewed and includes copious notes.

We started the discussion with an absent member’s suggestion that medicine hasn’t really changed much – hospital workers still often don’t wash their hands enough and many don’t get flu shots. Although some of us felt that we are so much more advanced now that we couldn’t agree, we also couldn’t help but think of the recent re-used needle scandal that convicted Dr. Dipak Desai; and of the mother and newborns that died of undiagnosed tuberculosis this last month. Our incredulity that Doctor Bliss’ authority could go unchallenged was tempered by our discussion – not only is truth stranger than fiction, but it is always easier to see the truth in hindsight. I was reminded of the member who told us about penicillin toothpaste.

We briefly discussed the changes in the approachability of the president, the politics of patronage, the change in Chester Arthur, the love story between Garfield and his wife, and the insanity of his assassin. We did not actually use the entire hour for the discussion. The book had little that was controversial but much that was new to us, and the discussion was thoughtful and considered, as is the written review another absent member gave me to share, and I will post it as a comment below. Destiny of the Republic is a book about President James Garfield, but also about the country, moving from war toward a new millennium. I was particularly moved by individual contributions – Julia Sand, who wrote to vice president Arthur and inspired him to rise to the challenge of the presidency, and all the individuals who lined the tracks of Garfield’s train as he traveled to the sea, finally pushing the train up the last hill to his cottage. Individual contributions and shared community experiences make a difference!

  • Other works discussed:
  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • Jerry Silverman’s Folk Song Encyclopedia v. 1 (includes a song about Charles Guiteau)
  • American President (PBS Series – DVD)

3 thoughts on “Destiny of the Republic Discussion Journal

  1. I enjoyed reading Destiny of the Republic very much. It is a shame that more books about historical people, places and events cannot be narrated with so much enthusiasm and interest. I found this to be a real “page turner.”

    Prior to reading this book I think the only thing I really knew about President James Garfield was that he had been assassinated shortly after his election, probably assuming that he had died immediately after being shot.

    I found it very interesting the way the author wove together the background of the various characters involved, including even Joseph Lister and his teachings of antiseptic surgery and how the failure by Dr. Bills to follow those teachings resulted in the suffering and death of President Garfield. How did Dr. Bliss gain so much control? He simply moved in and took charge and no one ever really disputed his authority: even the President himself.

    It is easy now to look back on the clues that should have made observers aware that Charles Guiteau was a potential hazard; but how many of the recent shooters/terrorists have been identified after the fact as having been mentally unstable? Even parents of these people have sometimes indicated that they have sought professional/social assistance and been rejected by the system.

    It is interesting to note that Guiteau was correct in his observation at his trial that in effect he was not guilty of having “killed” the President. If the medical treatment had been more efficient, Guiteau would have been on trial for attempted murder, rather than murder and President Garfield could have possibly been in attendance to give testimony and could have then lived to be one of our country’s great presidents.

    Millard’s description of James Garfield leads to the conclusion that he was “a good man” and would have worked unselfishly for the good of all. — RMP

    • Nice, thorough response. Millard weaves together facts with the pacing of fiction. I’m captivated with the story and the characters. And I do like reading about good people! I’m glad you noted that was her overall assessment of Garfield–good man. I wish I had known that years ago.

  2. RMP, My reply to your post was too shallow. You wrote a good review of Destiny of the Republic. You identified specifically the best traits. You encourage people to read the book, and to read more by the author. She certainly deserves the praise. I heard her speak in Kansas and found her to be very articulate, personable, intelligent, and kind. I wasn’t surprised that her work reflected those traits.

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