James Garfield is one of those Presidents that people tend to know little about, probably because he was only in office for four months before someone shot him. He didn’t have time to accomplish much or annoy the masses. Before reading Candice Millard’s latest book, DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC, I only knew him as a president who’d been assassinated. I had no idea what Garfield was like or who had shot him, or why.
Because Millard’s previous book, THE RIVER OF DOUBT (an account of Theodore Roosevelt’s journey down the Amazon), was so engrossing, I was eager to pick this one up, and it did not disappoint. Millard knows how to weave intriguing tales. Here, we learn about Charles Guiteau, the delusional and grandiose assassin, and what he was thinking. (PS—His photo bears a startling resemblance to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, which made me wonder, Do all crazy men look alike?) We also learn more about Garfield himself, who as far as I can recall was previously allotted only four lines on an overhead projector when I took US history in 10th grade. Turns out he was an amazing guy who didn’t even want to be president but got dragged into it at a time when the country was very broken, still ripped apart after the Civil War. And Garfield’s doctors were terrible: in fact, he might have lived if they hadn’t tried so hard to help! Meanwhile, Alexander Graham Bell was doing everything he could to invent a machine to find the bullet…. You get the picture.
It’s a good story. But more than that, it shows the impact that Garfield’s death had on the country at the time. I’m not going to explain that. For that, you should read the book.