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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard

I am a conspiracy theorist. Friends, don’t unfriend me quite yet, please. Now I’m not one who accepts every conspiracy that comes down the pipeline as fact. I measure the evidence available to me and use my best judgment. Sometimes people are grasping for a conspiracy, other times, you have to admit, the mainstream “facts” seem rather fishy.

It was this drive to analyze the facts that led me to read Destiny of the Republic. At one time I knew the minor details of why every assassination of an American President was possibly an internal job, but I could no longer recall why Garfield’s had been. I remembered he’d been shot in a train station by a “deranged man” looking for a post in the government, and that he’d been kept alive for months and that the details surrounding his medical treatment were sketchy, but I could recall little else. I decided it was time to “learn the facts.”

Now, before I give Millard a bad name here, let me state clearly that my intention was to learn the facts behind the assassination to form my own opinion of the possible conspiracy, that is not to say that Millard has in any way written an historical narrative that is conspiratorial in tone; in fact, though Millard addresses some of the talk of the time that Garfield’s assassination was an inside job, her tone largely dismisses such possibilities as unlikely.

Before I give my verdict on the possible conspiracy, let me talk about the book itself. I loved it. I don’t know why I don’t read more historical narratives. I guess part of my reluctance is that I am not a big fan of celebrating the lives of celebrities, that is people who are idolized regardless of their lives, which most often should not be held up as examples. It’s only a matter of time before more fiction than fact exists in the lives of many of history’s figures and we have yet another Jesus Christ in our midst (just look at how “the [American] founding fathers” are treated as saints though they were in fact merely less upstanding and more misguided versions of our contemporary politicians). Once again, I digress. Millard does a wonderful job keeping most of the facts straight and adding a narrative that is exciting and well organized. The second half of the book dragged a little for me, but this was solely because the focus became medicine and invention and I wasn’t personally interested in these subjects as much; Millard’s skill in telling this part of the story was handled exceptionally well and maintained the standard she put forth in the first half of the book.

As for the possible conspiracy, there is certainly a great deal of details that make for a good story. Even in Destiny of the Republic, where Millard attempts to dispel the rumors, there is enough circumstantial evidence to make one suspicious. Was Guiteau truly just a madman? Or was he a madman used by people of power? Was the spurned Conkling powerful enough to orchestrate the assassination of Garfield? Millard herself calls him “the most powerful man in America” at the time. Was it just a coincidence that one of Conkling’s most loyal followers was forced upon Garfield as Vice President? And what about Bliss, Garfield’s self-appointed doctor, who did everything wrong and refused to let anyone else treat Garfield and took no one else’s advice? The facts are certainly suspicious, but as with all matters such as this, it is unlikely the masses will ever know for sure.

One more aside: I found it fascinating that Garfield had no intention, in fact no desire to run for office of the President. He was nominated against his will and fought his party’s nomination. He did no campaigning whatsoever. It was an interesting and entertaining moment of the book and of history. So the next time someone tells you that you have to work hard and really want something to achieve something big, you can tell them the story of James A. Garfield, twentieth President of the United States, a man who had no aspirations for being president, but who was willing to accept the task when it was handed to him.