James Abram Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, a renowned congressman, and a reluctant presidential candidate who took on the nation's corrupt political establishment. But four months after Garfield's inauguration in 1881, he was shot in the back by a deranged office-seeker named Charles Guiteau. Garfield survived the attack, but become the object of bitter, behind-the-scenes struggles for power—over his administration, over the nation's future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. Meticulously researched, epic in scope, and pulsating with an intimate human focus and high-velocity narrative drive, The Destiny of the Republic brings alive a forgotten chapter of U.S. history.
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The Dark Dreams of Presidents
History is but the unrolled scroll of Prophecy.
james a. garfield
The idea came to Guiteau suddenly, “like a ﬂash,” he would later say. On May 18, two days after Conkling’s dramatic resignation, Guiteau, “depressed and perplexed . . . wearied in mind and body,” had climbed into bed at 8:00 p.m., much earlier than usual. He had been lying on his cot in his small, rented room for an hour, unable to sleep, his mind churning, when he was struck by a single, pulsing thought: “If the President was out of the way every thing would go better.”
Guiteau was certain the idea had not come from his own, feverish mind. It was a divine inspiration, a message from God. He was, he believed, in a unique position to recognize divine inspiration when it occurred because it had happened to him before. Even before the wreck of the steamship Stonington, he had been inspired, he said, to join the Oneida Community, to leave so that he might start a religious newspaper, and to become a traveling evangelist. Each time God had called him, he had answered.
This time, for the ﬁrst time, he hesitated. Despite his certainty that the message had come directly from God, he did not want to listen. The next morning, when the thought returned “with renewed force,” he recoiled from it. “I was kept horriﬁed,” he said, “kept throwing it off.” Wherever he went and whatever he did, however, the idea stayed with him. “It kept growing upon me, pressing me, goading me.”
Guiteau had “no ill-will to the President,” he insisted. In fact, he believed that he had given Garﬁeld every opportunity to save his own life. He was certain that God wanted Garﬁeld out of the way because he was a danger to the Republican Party and, ultimately, the American people. As Conkling’s war with Garﬁeld had escalated, Guiteau wrote to the president repeatedly, advising him that the best way to respond to the senator’s demands was to give in to them. “It seems to me that the only way out of this difﬁculty is to withdraw Mr. R.,” he wrote, referring to Garﬁeld’s appointment of Judge Robertson to run the New York Customs House. “I am on friendly terms with Senator Conkling and the rest of our Senators, but I write this on my own account and in the spirit of a peacemaker.”
Guiteau also felt that he had done all he could to warn Garﬁeld about Blaine. After the secretary of state had snapped at him outside of the State Department, he bitterly recounted the exchange in a letter to Garﬁeld. “Until Saturday I supposed Mr. Blaine was my friend in the matter of the Paris consulship,” he wrote, still wounded by the memory. “ ‘Never speak to me again,’ said Mr. Blaine, Saturday, ‘on the Paris consulship as long as you live.’ Heretofore he has been my friend.”
Even after his divine inspiration, Guiteau continued to appeal to Garﬁeld. On May 23, he again wrote to the president, advising him to demand Blaine’s “immediate resignation.” “I have been trying to be your friend,” he wrote darkly. “I do not know whether you appreciate it or not.” Garﬁeld would be wise to listen to him, he warned, “otherwise you and the Republican party will come to grief. I will see you in the morning if I can and talk with you.”
Guiteau did not see Garﬁeld the next morning, or any day after that. Unknown to him, he had been barred from the president’s ofﬁce. Even among the strange and strikingly persistent ofﬁce seekers that ﬁlled Garﬁeld’s anteroom every day, Guiteau had stood out. Brown, Garﬁeld’s private secretary, had long before relegated Guiteau’s letters to what was known as “the eccentric ﬁle,” but he continued to welcome him to the White House with the same courtesy he extended to every other caller. That did not change until Guiteau’s eccentricity and doggedness turned into belligerence. Finally, after a heated argument with one of the president’s ushers that ended with Guiteau sitting in a corner of the waiting room, glowering, Brown issued orders that “he should be quietly kept away.”
Soon after, Guiteau stopped going to the White House altogether. He gave up trying to secure an appointment, and he no longer fought the press of divine inspiration. For two weeks, he had prayed to God to show him that he had misunderstood the message he had received that night. “That is the way I test the Deity,” he would later explain. “When I feel the pressure upon me to do a certain thing and I have any doubt about it I keep praying that the Deity may stay it in some way if I am wrong.” Despite his prayers and constant vigilance, he had received no such sign.
By the end of May, Guiteau had given himself up entirely to his new obsession. Alone in his room, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, he pored over newspaper accounts of the battle between Conkling and the White House, ﬁxating on any criticism of Garﬁeld, real or implied. “I kept reading the papers and kept being impressed,” he remembered, “and the idea kept bearing and bearing and bearing down upon me.” Finally, on June 1, thoroughly convinced of “the divinity of the inspiration,” he made up his mind. He would kill the president.
The next day, Guiteau began to prepare. Although he believed he was doing God’s work, he had been driven for so long by a desire for fame and prestige that his ﬁrst thought was not how he would assassinate the president, but the attention he would receive after he did. “I thought just what people would talk and thought what a tremendous excitement it would create,” he wrote, “and I kept thinking about it all week.”
With his forthcoming celebrity in mind, Guiteau decided that his ﬁrst task should be to edit a religious book he had written several years ago called The Truth: A Companion to the Bible. The publicity it would bring the book, he believed, was one of the principal reasons God wanted him to assassinate the president. “Two points will be accomplished,” he wrote. “It will save the Republic, and create a demand for my book, The Truth. . . . This book was not written for money. It was written to save souls. In order to attract public attention the book needs the notice the President’s removal will give it.” There would be a great demand for the book following Garﬁeld’s death, he reasoned, so it should be “in proper shape.”
As was true of most things in Guiteau’s life, The Truth was largely stolen. In a single- sentence preface, he insisted that “a new line of thought runs through this book, and the Author asks for it a careful attention.” There was, however, nothing new about The Truth. The ideas, most of them copied verbatim, came from a book called The Berean, which John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of Oneida, had written in 1847, and which Guiteau’s father had treasured, believing that it was “better than the Bible.”
Even The Truth’s publication had been fraudulent. Guiteau had tried to persuade D. Lothrop & Co., one of the most respected publishers in Boston, to publish the book, but they had declined. Determined to see The Truth in print, and for it to have the illusion, if not the reality, of respectability, he hired a printing company to produce a thousand copies, all with “D. Lothrop and Company” on the binding and cover page. After trying unsuccessfully to sell the book for 50 cents apiece on the streets of Boston, he left town without paying the printer.
The next stage of Guiteau’s plan was more difﬁcult than the ﬁrst. If he was to assassinate the president, he realized, he would need a gun. Guiteau knew nothing about guns. Not only had he never owned a gun, he had never even ﬁred one. On June 6, he left his boardinghouse and walked to a sporting goods store that he had spotted on the corner of Fifteenth and F Streets, on the ground ﬂoor of a tavern. Upon opening the door, his eyes immediately fell on a showcase that held a selection of revolvers. He walked directly to the case, pointed to the largest gun, and asked the store’s owner, John O’Meara, if he could hold it. He “did not call it by name or ask for any special pistol,” O’Meara would later recall. “He examined it carefully, and inquired as to its accuracy, and made a few commonplace remarks.” After a few minutes, Guiteau handed the revolver back to O’Meara and told him that he would return in a few days.
Two days later, George Maynard, the man from whom Guiteau had borrowed $10 three months earlier, was at work when he looked up to ﬁnd the small, thin man standing once more in his ofﬁce. He had walked in so quietly that Maynard had not even heard him. Looking at Guiteau, he noticed that he held his head at an unusual angle, tilted slightly forward.
“He had a peculiar manner,” Maynard would later say, “a peculiar attitude, a peculiar walk.” What struck Maynard most of all, however, was the desperation he saw in the man standing before him. “The principal thing,” he remembered, “was that he looked hungry.”
Guiteau explained that he had received the $150 he had been expecting in March, but had used it to pay other bills. He was now, he said, awaiting an even larger check, this one for $500. In the meantime, he needed money to pay his board bill. If Maynard would give him $15, he would pay him back the full $25 as soon as he received his next windfall. Although by this point Maynard could not have had any hope of being repaid, he was, as Guiteau knew, “a good fellow.” Three minutes after he had walked in the door, Guiteau left with enough money to buy a gun.
That same day, Guiteau returned to John O’Meara’s shop, as he had promised he would. The last time he was there, he had seen two revolvers that interested him—one with a wooden handle that he could have for nine dollars, and another that cost a dollar more but had an ivory handle. He was drawn toward the more expensive gun, picturing it on display in the State Department’s library. Cradling the revolver in his hands, he asked O’Meara about its force. It was, the shop owner said, a self-cocking .44 caliber British Bulldog. “One of the strongest pistols made.”
After striking a deal with O’Meara—ten dollars for the revolver, a box of cartridges, and a two-bladed, pearl-handled penknife that had caught his eye—Guiteau asked him where he could take the gun to test it. O’Meara warned Guiteau that he would need to leave the city limits, and suggested he try the river’s edge. Taking his advice, Guiteau went to the Potomac one evening and shot ten cartridges with his new gun, sometimes aiming for the river, other times trying to hit a sapling growing nearby. Everything about the gun, from the feel of it in his hand to the damage it wrought, was utterly new and unfamiliar to him. “I knew nothing about it,” he would later say, “no more than a child.”
In his letters and, he would later insist, his thoughts, Guiteau never referred to what he was about to do as murder, or even assassination. He was simply removing the president—in his mind, an act not of violence or cruelty but practicality. Garﬁeld was a danger to his party and his country, and God had asked Guiteau to correct the situation. “The Lord inspired me to attempt to remove the President in preference to some one else, because I had the brains and the nerve to do the work,” he would explain. “The Lord always employs the best material to do His work.”
Guiteau had no illusions about what would happen to him after he assassinated the president. He had been twenty-three years old when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, and he could not have forgotten the manhunt that had led to Booth’s death. Prepared to kill for God but not to die, his only other option, he suspected, was imprisonment. As he had spent a month in the Tombs, he knew how bad jail could be. He felt, therefore, that it would be wise to make a trip to the District Jail. “I wanted to see what kind of a jail it was,” he would later say. “I knew nothing about where it was, nor the character of the building, nor anything.”
One Saturday morning, Guiteau took a streetcar from the Riggs Hotel as far as he could and then walked another three-quarters of a mile before reaching the prison. Walking “leisurely” to the warden’s ofﬁce, he rang the doorbell and waited calmly. When a guard arrived, he asked for a tour. Although the jail did not allow tours on Saturdays, Guiteau felt that he had gotten a good enough look at the building. “I thought it was a very excellent jail,” he said. “It is the best jail in America, I understand.”
Satisﬁed that the prison where he would be taken was far superior to the Tombs, Guiteau had nothing left to do but track down his prey. All the time and energy he had once spent trying to secure an appointment, he now devoted to following Garﬁeld. Guiteau knew that the president, who had no Secret Service agents and was in frequent contact with the public, was an easy target, especially outside the White House. “It would not do to go to the White House and attempt it, because there were too many of his employees about,” Guiteau wrote. “I looked around for several days to try and get a good chance at him.”
Finally, Guiteau chose the one place in Washington where Garﬁeld had always felt safe and at peace: his church. Killing the president in church was not sacrilegious, Guiteau argued. On the contrary, “there could not possibly be a better place to remove a man than at his devotions.”
Garﬁeld, moreover, could be counted on to attend church. A member of the Disciples of Christ since childhood, and himself a minister, he had faithfully attended the Vermont Avenue Christian Church in Washington since he entered Congress nearly twenty years earlier. He had been an active and involved parishioner, teaching Sunday school and, in 1869, helping the congregation raise enough money to build a larger church. The church’s pastor, Reverend S. D. Power, said that he felt God had “a wise and holy purpose” for Garﬁeld “and had raised him up as a Christian leader of a great people.”
Guiteau knew exactly where Garﬁeld’s church was because he had been there before. Several months earlier, drawn to the church out of curiosity, he had watched from one of the pews as Garﬁeld entered with Lucretia and their ﬁve children. Garﬁeld had missed many Sundays since then, choosing instead to stay home with Lucretia during her illness. As she had begun to recover, however, he had come back, grateful to the congregation for their many prayers.
Guiteau returned to Garﬁeld’s church on June 12. The sermon had already begun, and Garﬁeld had settled into a pew next to Lucretia’s doctor and the doctor’s wife, when Guiteau stepped inside. Although he was late, he paused at the door, scanning the congregation for the instantly recognizable ﬁgure of the president, who was taller and had broader shoulders than nearly any other man in the church. Quickly locating him, Guiteau noted that he was sitting next to an open window that stood about three feet from the ground. “That,” he judged, “would be a good chance to get him.” By standing just outside the window, Guiteau thought, he could aim the gun so that the bullet would travel through the back of the president’s head and into the ceiling without endangering anyone around him.
Although he had his revolver in his pocket and, had he stepped outside the church, a clear shot through the window, Guiteau stayed seated throughout the sermon. It was, Garﬁeld would later write, “a very stupid sermon on a very great subject.” Guiteau apparently agreed with the president. At one point, no longer able to restrain his frustration, he shouted out, “What think ye of Christ?” Garﬁeld heard Guiteau’s outburst and mentioned it in his diary that night, referring to him as “a dull young man, with a loud voice, trying to pound noise into the question.”
When the sermon was over, Guiteau had missed his opportunity, but he had not given up on his plan. After watching Garﬁeld step into a carriage and ride away, Guiteau walked to the side of the church to examine the window near which the president had been sitting. Standing in the summer sun, Guiteau could picture the moment when he would raise his gun and take aim. “Next Sunday,” he thought, “I would certainly shoot him.”
Before the next Sunday sermon, however, another opportunity presented itself to Guiteau. On Thursday he read in the newspaper that the president would soon be traveling to New Jersey with his wife. That same night, Garﬁeld mentioned the trip in his diary, writing that, in an attempt to help Lucretia’s recovery, “we have concluded to take her to the sea shore for its bracing air.” The family, Guiteau knew, would be leaving from the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station the following Saturday.
A train station, Guiteau thought, might even be better than a church. That Saturday morning he woke up around six, put his gun in his pocket, and walked down to the Potomac to practice his aim one last time. After shooting off another ten cartridges, he made his way to the train station. He arrived before Garﬁeld, and so was able to watch as the president stepped out of the carriage with Lucretia.
It was the sight of the ﬁrst lady, Guiteau would later say, that prevented him from carrying out God’s work that day. “I was all ready,” he said. “My mind was all made up; I had all my papers with me; I had all the arrangements made to shoot him.” When he saw Lucretia, however, he could not go through with it. She looked “so thin,” he said, “and she clung so tenderly to the President’s arm, that I did not have the heart to ﬁre on him.” Garﬁeld walked right past his would-be assassin, his attention focused on Lucretia.
After returning to his boardinghouse that day, Guiteau wrote a letter to the American people. He had, he explained, “intended to remove the President this morning at the depot,” but after seeing Garﬁeld with Lucretia, he decided it would be best to “take him alone.” Although he wanted to spare the ﬁrst lady the horror of witnessing her husband’s fatal shooting, Guiteau argued that, when he did kill the president, his death would not be any more painful to Lucretia because it was the result of assassination. “It will be no worse for Mrs. Garﬁeld, to part with her husband this way, than by natural death,” Guiteau reasoned. “He is liable to go at any time any way.”
Garﬁeld arrived back in Washington on June 27, in the midst of a heavy storm. He had been reluctant to leave Lucretia, worrying that the “sea air is too strong for her,” but he was thrilled by the progress she had made. He also knew that he would see her again soon. In less than a week, while his two youngest boys headed to Ohio for the summer, he would leave for New England with his older sons. The plan was to meet up with Lucretia and Mollie and then go on to Massachusetts, where they would attend his twenty-ﬁfth class reunion at Williams College and help Harry and Jim settle in for the upcoming academic year.
Before Garﬁeld could leave, however, he needed to meet with his cabinet. With Conkling out of the way, he had ﬁnally been able to establish a strong, if at times contentious, cabinet, which, as he had always intended, included Stalwarts as well as Half-Breeds. The most prominent of the Stalwarts was Robert Todd Lincoln, Garﬁeld’s secretary of war and Abraham Lincoln’s oldest and only surviving son.
On June 30, as the cabinet was about to adjourn for the last time before the president’s trip, Garﬁeld suddenly turned to Lincoln with an unusual question. He had heard, he said, that his father had had a prophetic dream shortly before his assassination, and he wondered if Robert would describe it. Although a private and reserved man, Lincoln agreed to tell the story.
After he had fallen asleep late one night, Abraham Lincoln had had a dream in which, he later told his wife and an old friend, there was a “death-like stillness about me.” Within the stillness, however, he could hear “subdued sobs.” Leaving his room, he searched the White House for the source of the weeping, but every room he entered was empty. Finally, stepping into the East Room, he saw a cofﬁn that was guarded by soldiers. “Who is dead in the White House?” he asked. “Why, don’t you know?” one of the soldiers replied. “The President has been assassinated.”
Lincoln had believed deeply in dreams, seeing in them omens that he dared not ignore. After having “an ugly dream” about their son Tad, he had advised his wife to put Tad’s pistol away. Another time, while in Richmond, Virginia, he had asked her to return to Washington after he dreamed that the White House was on ﬁre. When questioned about his belief in dreams, Lincoln had often cited the Bible as support. He pointed to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, as well as several other chapters in the Old and New Testaments. These passages, he said, “reveal God’s meaning in dreams.”
Although Garﬁeld did not share Lincoln’s reverence for dreams, he had had a few that seemed strange or powerful enough to record. In late January, little more than a month before his inauguration, he had written down a dream he had had in which Chester Arthur drowned. He and a close friend, General David Swaim, had escaped a sinking ship, only to watch Arthur, who was lying on a couch, very pale and obviously ill, disappear under the surface of the water. “I started to plunge into the water to save Arthur,” Garﬁeld wrote, “but Swaim held me, and said he cannot be saved, and you will perish if you attempt it.”
It was his own death, however, that was often on Garﬁeld’s mind. Although he was by nature a cheerful and optimistic man, like Lincoln, he had long felt that he would die an early death. When his friends tried to talk him out of this grim conviction, his only answer was that the thought seemed to him “as foolish as it does to you.” Nonetheless, he could not shake it. “I do not know why it haunts me,” he said. “Indeed, it is a thing that is wholly involuntary on my part, and when I try the hardest not to think of it it haunts me most.” The feeling, he said, came to him most often at night, “when all is quiet.” It was then that his mind would turn to his father, who died “in the strength of his manhood,” when his wife and children needed him most. At those times, Garﬁeld said, “I feel it so strong upon me that the vision is in the form of a warning that I cannot treat lightly.”
The night after his cabinet meeting, July 1, Garﬁeld had dinner with Captain Charles E. Henry, the marshal of the District of Columbia, and invited his guest to join him in the library afterward. As the conversation drifted, Henry would later recall, Garﬁeld began to talk about the times in his life, particularly his boyhood, when he had miraculously escaped death. Just days before, he had received word that his uncle Thomas Garﬁeld had been killed when his carriage was struck by a train, and the tragedy had brought back not just memories of his own near-drowning years before on the canal, but the deaths of his father and children, and Lucretia’s recent, nearly fatal illness. As Henry sat in the candle-lit library, listening to Garﬁeld, he realized that he “had never heard him speak . . . in the way he did that night.” Garﬁeld was, Henry said, “undoubtedly dwelling upon the uncertainty of life.”
After Henry left, Garﬁeld, wishing to talk to Blaine, decided to walk to the secretary of state’s house, just a few blocks away. As the president stepped out of the White House, Charles Guiteau, sitting on a park bench across the street in Lafayette Park, looked up. When he saw Garﬁeld, he stood and began to follow him, staying on the opposite side of the street. He had been sitting in the same park two nights earlier and had watched as Garﬁeld left the White House by carriage. After half an hour had passed and the president had not returned, Guiteau had decided to “let the matter drop for the night.” Now, as he shadowed Garﬁeld, he removed the loaded revolver from his pocket, carrying it stifﬂy at his side.
When Garﬁeld reached Blaine’s house, Guiteau stepped back into the shadows of a hotel alley. Happening to glance out a window, Harriet Blaine caught sight of the president and ran to open the door. As he waited for Blaine, Garﬁeld gave Harriet a present—a bound and signed copy of his inaugural address—and talked to her about the trip he would be making the following day.
When Blaine ﬁnally appeared, he and Garﬁeld stepped out together for a walk. From the alley, Guiteau, who had passed the time examining his gun and wiping it down, watched as the two men walked down the street arm in arm, their heads close together as they spoke. Garﬁeld’s camaraderie with his secretary of state enraged Guiteau, proving, he said, that “Mr. Garﬁeld had sold himself body and soul to Blaine.”
Guiteau followed Blaine and Garﬁeld all the way to the White House, his gun at his side. He could have easily killed either man at any moment, but he never raised the revolver. After watching the president disappear inside the White House, he walked back to his boardinghouse through the dark streets of Washington. The image of Garﬁeld and Blaine “engaged in the most earnest conversation” haunted him, and the hesitancy he had shown for weeks hardened into resolve. He would not let another opportunity to kill the president pass without taking it. “My mind,” he would later say, “was perfectly clear.”
What People are Saying About This
"Historian Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic is first-rate history, political intrigue, and a true-crime story all rolled into one. Millard is masterful at capturing the zeitgeist of America during the 1880s, when President James Garfield was assassinated. An epic must-read!" --(Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior)
"In this brilliant and riveting work, Candice Millard demonstrates the power of narrative nonfiction. Through exhaustive research and flawless storytelling, she has brought to life one of the most harrowing and fascinating sagas in American history—a saga filled with political intrigue, a mad assassin, and a frantic scientific struggle to save the life of a noble president. This is a book that is impossible to put down." --(David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z)
"As she did in The River of Doubt, Candice Millard has written another riveting narrative, this time about a long-neglected but remarkable president, James A. Garfield, who was shot by a deranged office seeker just a few weeks after he assumed the presidency. What happens next is detailed in the accomplished book. Just as Millard put us deep in the Amazon with Teddy Roosevelt, she has skillfully allowed us to share this traumatic moment." --(Ken Burns)
"Candice Millard has done it again: She's turned the sometimes stodgy realm of presidential history on its head with a gripping tale of high danger and stoic endurance, a tale that had nearly completely vanished from public memory. What an exceptional man and what an exciting era Millard has brought to elegant life on the page! After reading Destiny of the Republic, you'll never think of James A. Garfield as a ‘minor' president again—and you'll despise anew our national penchant for hatching madmen who snuff out greatness in its prime." --(Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail)
"In President Garfield's assassination, 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. If you enjoy reading about Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, you will find this book riveting." --(Debby Applegate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America)
A New York Times Notable Book
"Crisp, concise and revealing history. . . . A fresh narrative that plumbs some of the most dramatic days in U.S. presidential history."
—The Washington Post
“A spirited tale that intertwines murder, politics and medical mystery. . . . Candice Millard leaves us feeling that Garfield's assassination deprived the nation not only of a remarkably humble and intellectually gifted man but one who perhaps bore the seeds of greatness . . . splendidly drawn portraits. . . . Alexander Graham Bell makes a bravura appearance.”
—The Wall Street Journal
"Fascinating. . . . Gripping. . . . Stunning. . . . The haunting tale of how a man who never meant to seek the presidency found himself swept into the White House. . . . Millard shows the Garfield legacy to be much more important than most of her readers knew it to be."
—The New York Times
"Destiny of the Republic displays Millard's energetic writing and rare ability to effortlessly educate the listener."
"A staggering tale. . . . Millard digs deeply into the turmoil that got James A. Garfield elected, the lunacy that got him shot and the medical malfeasance that turned a minor wound into a mortal one."
—Janet Maslin, Top 10 Recommendations for 2011
“One of the many pleasures of Candice Millard’s new book, Destiny of the Republic, [is] that she brings poor Garfield to life—and a remarkable life it was. . . . Fascinating. . . . Millard has written us a penetrating human tragedy.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Brings the era and people involved to vivid life. . . . Takes the reader on a compelling fly on-the-wall journey. . . . Millard takes all of these elements in a forgotten period of history and turns them into living and breathing things.”
“Think you’re not interested in James Garfield, our 20th President? Millard’s action-packed account of his life and truly strange death should change your mind.”
“Filled with memorable characters, hairpin twists of fate and consequences that bring a young nation to the breaking point, Destiny of the Republic brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“A winning amalgamation of history and adventure. They [Millard’s books] exhibit a keen eye for human frailties.”
—The Washington Post
"Fascinating. . . . Millard colorfully recreates the political milieu of 1880."
—The Seattle Times
"Millard provides a splendidly written and suspenseful account of this fascinating episode in American history."
“By keeping a tight hold on her narrative strands, Millard crafts a popular history rich with detail and emotion. One of the pleasures of the book is the chance to learn more about Garfield, who appears as a fully realized historical figure instead of a trivia answer.”
“This tale of physician error contextualized by politics and murder makes for riveting reading. Ms. Millard recounts this episode of our nation’s history in a style that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even though the ending is known.”
—The Washington Times
“Splendid. . . . recovers for us just what a remarkable—even noble—man Garfield was. . . . She also chillingly depicts his killer. . . . This wonderful book reminds us that our 20th president was neither a minor nor merely a tragic figure, but rather an extraordinary one.”
—The Plain Dealer
“An achingly good, suspenseful read. . . . compelling characters and nail-biting storytelling, and [readers] will no doubt walk away even more emotionally affected by Garfield’s tragedy.”
—The Kansas City Star
“Blends science, medicine, and politics in a crime story that grabs tight and it does not let go until the very last page. . . . A remarkable book. It is crisply written and riveting.”
"Millard finds the ironies of history throughout this stirring narrative, one that's full of suspense even though you know what's coming. She makes you a witness, not a reader."
“Destiny of the Republic is popular history at its best—accessible, educational and entertaining—and Millard renders it with grace, power and sympathy.”
“Make[s] for compulsive reading. Superb American history."
—Kirkus, starred review
"Splendidly insightful. . . . stands securely at the crossroads of popular and professional history."
—Booklist, starred review
“Sparklingly alive. . . [Millard] brings to life a moment in the nation’s history when access to the president was easy, politics bitter, and medical knowledge slight. Under Millard’s pen, it’s hard to imagine its being better told.”
“Historian Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic is first-rate history, political intrigue, and a true-crime story all rolled into one. . . . An epic must-read!”
—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior
“In this brilliant and riveting work, Candice Millard demonstrates the power of narrative nonfiction. Through exhaustive research and flawless storytelling, she has brought to life one of the most harrowing and fascinating sagas in American history. . . . This is a book that is impossible to put down.”
—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“Candice Millard has done it again: She’s turned the sometimes stodgy realm of presidential history on its head with a gripping tale of high danger and stoic endurance, a tale that had nearly completely vanished from public memory. What an exceptional man and what an exciting era Millard has brought to elegant life on the page!”
—Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail
“In President Garfield’s assassination, 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.”
—Debby Applegate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America
“As she did in The River of Doubt, Candice Millard has written another riveting narrative. . . . She has skillfully allowed us to share this traumatic moment.”
Barnes & Noble Exclusive Essay
Destiny of the Republic
By Candice Millard
At the heart of Destiny of the Republic is the story of the assassination of President James Garfield. What made me want to write this book, however, was not what I knew about President Garfieldthat he had been shot by a deranged man in the summer of 1881but all that I did not.
In everything I read, I am always looking for the thread of an idea, something that surprises me, and leaves me wanting to know more. To me, that's the best part of being a writerfollowing an idea to see where it leads. Most of the time, after doing a little research, I quickly come to a dead end. One day four years ago, however, I found much more than I had ever expected.
While reading a biography of Alexander Graham Bell, I learned that Bell had tried to help save Garfield's life after the President was shot. I wondered why a man as famous and powerful as Bell, who had invented the telephone just five years earlier, would abandon everything he was working on, put his life on hold, to help any man, even a President. The only way to answer that question, I realized, was to understand exactly what Bell had invented, and, more than that, to find out what kind of man Garfield had been.
After the assassination attempt, Bell devoted himself night and day to inventing something called an induction balance, a type of metal detector, to locate the bullet lodged in the President's body. The induction balance that Bell used for the final time on Garfield is on display in the National Museum of American History, on the National Mall. What most people don't know, however, is that the museum also has all of the versions of Bell's induction balance, in various shapes and sizes, with hanging wires and unfinished edges, that he created while trying to perfect his invention. As I held these fragile instruments in my gloved hands, carefully examining their intricate workings, I could almost see Bell's mind working, and his heart racing, as the President drew closer and closer to death.
Although, in the end, I would spend three years working on this book, it took only a few days of research to realize what Bell must have knownthat President Garfield was not only a tragic figure, but one of the most extraordinary men ever elected President of the United States. A passionate abolitionist, Garfield was not only hailed a hero in the Civil War, but was a fierce champion of the rights of freed slaves. At the same time, he was a supremely gifted scholar who had become a university president at just 26 years of age, and, while in Congress, wrote an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.
With each diary entry and letter I read, each research trip I took, Garfield came more clearly and vividly to life. It was not until I visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., however, that I began to understand the extent of the suffering that Garfield, and the nation with him, had endured. In its archives, in a large metal cabinet with long, deep drawers, the museum keeps the remains of two presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau, the man who shot Garfield. In the same cabinet, in a drawer just below Guiteau's, lies a six-inch section of Garfield's spine, a red pin inserted through a hole in the knobby, yellowed bone to show the path of Guiteau's bullet. It is impossible to look at this heartbreaking collection without being struck by the fact that this story, now hardly remembered, was once a tragedy so wrenching that it transfixed and terrified an entire nation.
This book is my attempt to step back in time, to understand these men and this moment in history, and to tell a story that should never have been forgotten.
Q&A with Candice Millard, author of DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC:
Q: The assassination of President James A. Garfield is a long-forgotten moment in American history. What sparked the idea for DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC and why do you feel it's important to tell this story?
A: I didn't start out to write about President Garfield. To be honest, I knew very little about him beyond the fact that he had been shot after four months in office. I was interested in Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. While researching Bell, however, I learned that he had worked night and day, turning his own life upside down, to try to save Garfield's life after the President was shot. I had never before heard this story, and I was fascinated that a genius like Bell would go to such lengths to help another man, even a President. So I wondered what kind of man Garfield was. What I learned was what Bell must have known: that Garfield was, without question, one of the most extraordinary men ever elected President. The more I learned about Garfield, the more I knew I had to tell this story.
Q: Garfield was a self-made man whose extraordinary rise from poverty to the Presidency is the stuff of American legendcongressman, Senator, Civil War general. How did Garfield rise above his humble beginnings? And how did education shape and inform him as a politician?
A: Garfield knew from painful personal experience that the nation's only hope for real progressfor freedom from poverty, ignorance and intolerancewas education. Although he had paid for his first year of college by working as a carpenter and janitor, by his sophomore year he was promoted to professor of literature and ancient languages. By the time he was 26 years old, he was the college president. Even while he was in Congress, Garfield could recite the entire Aeneid by heart, in Latin, and he wrote an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. So strong was Garfield's belief in the power of education that it largely defined his years in Congress. He gave countless speeches on the importance of education, argued that the best way to bring the South back into the Union was through the education of its children, advocated the establishment of schools at military camps, and proposed the first federal Department of Education.
Q: DESTINY opens with Garfield attending the 1876 United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Two key men that figured in the electrifying race to save Garfield's life after the assassinationJoseph Lister and Alexander Graham Bellwere exhibitors at the Centennial. Why did Garfield attend? What were Bell and Lister promoting at the Exhibition?
A: Garfield attended the exhibition because he believed in the power of ideas, and he wanted to see what the world's finest minds had achieved. There were no more shining examples of intellectual achievement in the nineteenth century than Alexander Graham Bell and Joseph Lister. Bell, who was only 29 years old, had just invented the telephone, and had brought it to the exhibition to publicly display it for the first time. Lister, a British surgeon, had discovered antisepsisone of the most important advances in medical historyand had traveled to Philadelphia to try to convince American doctors of the importance of sterilization. Unfortunately for Garfield, and the nation, they were not yet ready to listen.
Q: The spoils system was alive and well in late 19th century U.S. politics, and no one reaped the rewards more than Senator Roscoe Conkling. How was Conkling arguably the most powerful politician in the country? And what was his relationship to Garfield's Vice President, Chester A. Arthur?
A: Conkling was a vain, preening, ruthlessly powerful senator from New York. He tightly controlled the New York Custom's House, which collected 70% of the country's customs revenue, and he expected complete and unquestioning loyalty. Politically, Arthur was utterly Conkling's creation. The only other political position he had held before the vice presidency was as the controller of the New York customs house, a job that Conkling, through President Grant, had given him. Even after the election, Arthur made it clear where his loyalties lay. He vacationed with Conkling, even lived with him in New York, and took every opportunity to publicly criticize the President.
Q: Garfield was surprisingly named the Republican nominee for President at the 1880 Chicago Republican Convention. How did the rivalry between the two factionsthe Stalwarts and the Half-Breedsof the Republican party thrust Garfield to the nomination? And why did Garfield consider the presidency a "bleak mountain" that he was obliged to ascend?
A: Not only was Garfield not a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1880, he didn't want to be one. He had never had what he called "presidential fever." He attended the convention to give a speech nominating another man. So eloquent and powerful was that speech, however that it deeply moved the raucous crowd of 15,000. When the balloting began, to Garfield's shock and horror, delegates began casting their votes for him. Before he knew it, despite his fervent objections, he had won the nomination.
Q: Charles Guiteau, Garfield's deranged assassin, led a peripatetic, lonely life and by 1880 had become obsessed with politics. At that time, the President kept calling hours for the American public Monday through Friday at the White House and Guiteau visited several times. What did Guiteau expect to receive from Garfield? And at what point did he decide to kill the President?
A: This was the height of the spoils system. Not only did many Americans feel entitled to government appointments, regardless of their abilities or experience, but they insisted on making their case directly to the President himself. Garfield was expected to meet with office seekers, one on one, face to face, from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., every day. The idea of political patronage appealed to no one more than Charles Guiteau. Guiteau had failed at everything he had triedfrom law to evangelism to even a free-love communebut he was deeply, dangerously delusional. He believed that Garfield would not only give him a political appointment, but would make him the consul-general to France. All that was necessary, he believed, was persistence. Guiteau went to the State Department and White House nearly every day for monthseven walking into the President's office at one point, while Garfield was in itexpecting to be given the consulship. Finally, frustrated and desperate, he had what he believed was a divine inspiration: God wanted him to kill the President.
Q: On July 2, 1881four months after his inauguration Garfield was assassinated by Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac Station in Washington. Two shots hit the President, but the bullets didn't kill him. How did the immediate actions of Garfield's doctorsled by Dr. Doctor Blisscause more harm than the bullets?
A: By an incredible stroke of luck, the bullet that tore through Garfield's back did not hit his spinal cord or any of his vital organs. Today, he would have spent a few nights in the hospital. Even if his doctors had just left him alone, he almost certainly would have survived. For more than two months, however, Bliss and a small team of doctors repeatedly inserted unsterilized fingers and instruments in the President's back, probing for the bullet. The resulting infection that coursed through Garfield's body was far more lethal than Guiteau's bullet.
Q: First Lady Lucretia Garfield was the center of Garfield's world. Yet their marriage had taken years to blossom. Why was their courtship difficult and how had their marriage changed over the course of 30 years?
A: During the first five years of their marriage, James and Lucretia were separated almost constantly, by Garfield's service during the Civil War and his work in Washington, D.C. Even when they were together, their starkly different personalitiesLucretia was as quiet and private as James was cheerful and outgoingmade it very difficult for them to understand each other. Slowly, however, and after enduring great heartachefrom the death of their first child to James's brief affair with a young widowthey fell deeply in love, a love that was as vibrant as it was abiding. "I hear record the most deliberate conviction of my soul," James wrote to Lucretia one night from Washington. "Were every tie that binds me to the men and women of the world severed, and I free to choose out of all the world the sharer of my heart and home and life, I would fly to you and ask you to be mine as you are."
Q: Bliss supervised Garfield's care with an iron fist and complete control, much to the President's detriment. How did Bliss transform the White House into a hospital? And how did he manipulate the public into believing that Garfield's condition was improving, when in fact he was suffering greatly?
A: No one gave Bliss authority over Garfield's medical care. He just took it. He took advantage of the chaos that followed the shooting to establish himself as the President's chief physician, and then he dismissed all the other doctors. So completely did Bliss isolate Garfield in his sick roomrefusing nearly all visitors, even the Secretary of Statethat rumors began to circulate that the President had died. Bliss began issuing medical bulletins about Garfield's condition, but they were unwaveringly optimistic. Even when Garfield was suffering from severe septicemia, Bliss took great satisfaction in the "healthy pus" issuing from the President's wound, and insisted that his condition was steadily improving. Only in a private letter to a friend did Bliss admit that he feared for the President's life. "I can't afford to have him die," he wrote.
Q: How did Bliss enlist Alexander Graham Bell's help in trying to find the bullet and save Garfield's life? How did Bell's induction balance perform? Where is the device today?
A: Bell was not interested in wealth or fame. He wanted to help people. His wife and his mother were deaf, and he had lost both of his brothers to tuberculosis. He knew that, through his ideas and his inventions, he could improve lives, maybe even save them. When he learned of the President's shooting, he abandoned everything he was working on and devoted all of his time, energy, and genius to saving Garfield. He worked night and day for months to invent an induction balance, basically a metal detector, to find the bullet lodged in the President's body. Bell was ultimately defeated, but not because his invention didn't work. It did work. In fact, it went on to save countless lives before the invention of the medical x-ray. Bell was defeated by the President's own doctors, who didn't tell him that Garfield was lying on a metal-spring mattresswhich was very unusual at the timeand wouldn't allow him to test the President's left side, where the bullet actually lay, because Bliss believedand had publicly statedthat it was on the right. Bell's induction balance is now in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The final instrument he used on the President is on display, but Bell built many versions of the invention, desperately trying to perfect it while Garfield lay dying. In 1898, he donated those instruments to the museum's archives, where they remain today.
Q: Garfield spent his last days at the ocean in Elberon, NJ. Can you describe the train journey from the White House to Elberon? Why was dying near the water important to Garfield?
A: Garfield knew that he was dying, and he was determined not to spend his final days in the miserably hot, lonely sick room in the White House. If he could not go home to his beloved farmhouse in Ohio, he wanted to go to the sea. "I have always felt that the ocean was my friend," he had written in his diary just a few weeks before the shooting. "The sight of it brings rest and peace." As a specially outfitted train carried Garfield from Washington to Elberon, thousands of people lined the tracks, watching in silence as their President passed by. Although 2,000 people had worked until dawn to lay enough track to take the President directly to the house where he would be staying, the train could not breach the hill on which the cottage sat. Out of the crowd that had waited for hours for Garfield, two hundred men rushed forward to help, solemnly pushing the train cars to the door of the cottage.
Q: Guiteau's trial became one of the media events of the century, and one of the earliest proceedings in which an insanity defense was asserted. Can you describe Guiteau's courtroom behavior as well as what he considered his defense?
A: In their grief and rage, the American people were determined to see Garfield's assassin hanged for his crime. If any murderer, however, deserved to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, it was Charles Guiteau. Although he was extremely intelligent and incredibly articulate, the more he spoke during his trial, the more apparent his insanity became. He constantly attacked his own lawyerwho was his brother-in-law, the only man in the country willing to represent himhe refuted testimony, questioned witnesses, and even made a public appeal for money. Although he had taken the insanity defense, Guiteau wanted to make it clear that he had been insane only at the time of the shootingnot before, and certainly not after. More important, he argued that, while he had shot the President, Garfield's doctors had killed him. "They ought to be indicted for murdering James A. Garfield," Guiteau wrote in a public statement, "and not me."
Q: Chester Arthur was horrified by Garfield's assassination and even more terrified of becoming President. How did the letters from a mysterious friend transform Arthur from a widely distrusted Vice President into a respected President?
A: After the attempt on Garfield's life, Chester Arthur made a transformation so complete and stunning that no one could believe it. Sickened and grief stricken by the shooting, Arthur hid himself away, refusing even to go to Washington for fear that it would look like he was waiting in the wings. He even cut himself off from Conkling, the man who had made him, and found moral strength in the most unlikely of placesthe letters of a young invalid woman named Julia Sand. Sand believed in Arthur when no one else did, when he didn't even believe in himself. While the rest of the world was horrified by the idea of Arthur becoming President, Sand urged him not to walk away. "Do what is more difficult & more brave," she wrote. "Reform!" And, to everyone's astonishment, not least of all his own, Arthur did. He tried to become the President Garfield would have been had he lived. He became an honest and respected leader, and a reform-minded President. Arthur also never forgot Julia Sand. Not only did he keep her letters and write her back, but he even went to see her. Sand had just finished Sunday dinner at her brother's house, when a highly polished carriage pulled up out front. To everyone's astonishment, out stepped the President, who had come to thank one of his most important advisers in person.