To the victor go the spoils. Or so believed Charles Guiteau. When Guiteau’s man, James A. Garfield won the presidency Guiteau assumed he would be given a position as a high-ranking diplomat to Paris. After all, Guiteau did write a speech that got Garfield elected. Unfortunately for him, Garfield make it quite clear that he had no interest in the spoils system, oh, and he had never actually heard of Guiteau anyway.
From the first few pages of Candice Millard’s new book I started making connections to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I was excited to be making such a literary pairing, and feeling proud of the breadth and depth of my reading experiences. But when I took a break and looked closely at the back I saw that the promotional snippet already made that allusion. But I’m not too broken up about it because that was truly the only disappointing thing with this new historical gem.
When approaching Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, think about how much you know about James A. Garfield. I’m hoping you’re saying “nothing” because I knew absolutely nothing about him. This book turned my complete ignorance into complete interest – instantly. Each page of this book had me in awe and wonder, and I mean that most sincerely and literally. Each and every page held wonders of the political, social, technological, and medicinal that it was a wonder to me that this information is not more widely known.
Though this book is not a full biography on the United States’ 20th President, it does quickly provide the context of his background. He was a poor, fatherless child. His mother and brothers sacrificed greatly for his schooling, and through hard work and a natural intelligence he succeeded wonderfully, eventually finding himself as a US House Representative from Ohio. Millard doesn’t spend much time at all on his political achievements, but she does detail in astonishing and thrilling ways the Republican convention where Garfied was nominated for President. This section was the highlight of the book for me. I read it mouth agape and on the edge of my chair.
The parallel story of Garfield’s presidency is that of Guiteau and his rise to infamy. His story bounces from a strange cult commune to a charlatan law practice to a traveling preacher gig. Somewhere in there he decides that he deserves to be the official emissary of the US to Paris. When he is rebuffed, he decides that the Republican party, and even America herself, must be saved from Garfield. Thus, he took it upon himself to assassinate the president.
Guiteau was clearly insane. But the way he bobs along on the fringes of sanity is an entirely compelling story in itself. Mix in an incredible story involving Alexander Graham Bell and the brilliant writings from Garfield’s diary and you get this book that reads like a perfectly planned fiction. It is brilliant from start to finish and entirely worthy of every reader’s attention.