Steve Inskeep tells the riveting story of John and Jessie Frémont, the husband and wife team who in the 1800s were instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States, and thus became America''s first great political couple
John C. Frémont, one of the United States’s leading explorers of the nineteenth century, was relatively unknown in 1842, when he commanded the first of his expeditions to the uncharted West. But in only a few years, he was one of the most acclaimed people of the age – known as a wilderness explorer, bestselling writer, gallant army officer, and latter-day conquistador, who in 1846 began the United States’s takeover of California from Mexico. He was not even 40 years old when Americans began naming mountains and towns after him. He had perfect timing, exploring the West just as it captured the nation’s attention. But the most important factor in his fame may have been the person who made it all possible: his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont.
Jessie, the daughter of a United States senator who was deeply involved in the West, provided her husband with entrée to the highest levels of government and media, and his career reached new heights only a few months after their elopement. During a time when women were allowed to make few choices for themselves, Jessie – who herself aspired to roles in exploration and politics – threw her skill and passion into promoting her husband. She worked to carefully edit and publicize his accounts of his travels, attracted talented young men to his circle, and lashed out at his enemies. She became her husband’s political adviser, as well as a power player in her own right. In 1856, the famous couple strategized as John became the first-ever presidential nominee of the newly established Republican Party.
With rare detail and in consummate style, Steve Inskeep tells the story of a couple whose joint ambitions and talents intertwined with those of the nascent United States itself. Taking advantage of expanding news media, aided by an increasingly literate public, the two linked their names to the three great national movements of the time—westward settlement, women’s rights, and opposition to slavery. Together, John and Jessie Frémont took parts in events that defined the country and gave rise to a new, more global America. Theirs is a surprisingly modern tale of ambition and fame; they lived in a time of social and technological disruption and divisive politics that foreshadowed our own. In
Imperfect Union, as Inskeep navigates these deeply transformative years through Jessie and John’s own union, he reveals how the Frémonts’ adventures amount to nothing less than a tour of the early American soul.
“In the hands of National Public Radio journalist Steve Inskeep, the Frémonts become a vehicle to explore media, the making of modern celebrity, and the fascinating world of mid-nineteenth century American politics . . . [Inskeep’s] contribution is to frame these disparate threads through the lens of a widened Frémont circle, masterfully weaving the narratives together in highly readable prose. What emerges is a rich tapestry of not only the Frémonts’ relationship (an “imperfect union”), but also their imperfect midcentury United States as well.”
—Missouri Historical Review
“Revelatory . . . a fresh look that brings 21st-century vision to bear on the 19th-century story. In writing about both Frémont and his wife, Jessie, the aggressive promoter of his career, Inskeep does two important things. He shines an unsparing light on his subjects, and he finds unnerving similarities between the Frémonts’ America and our own. Like Candice Millard’s
Destiny of the Republic, an improbably thrilling book about the Garfield assassination,
Imperfect Union finds a big, resonant, star-studded subject that has been hiding in plain sight. . . . If the book’s purpose is to illuminate and chill, mission accomplished.” —
The New York Times
“[A] fine new book by Steve Inskeep . . . His journalist’s eye for detail and nuance serves his readers well. His account of the dumb luck of the Frémonts in becoming insanely wealthy in California—a property that John bought for a ranch proved to sit atop the Mother Lode—makes clear how capricious fortune could be in that singular moment of American history. And as a journalist, Inskeep recognizes spin when he sees it.” —
The Washington Post
“Vibrant and propulsive
, Imperfect Union is by far Inskeep’s strongest book, reminiscent of work by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham.” —
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“In skillfully telling the story of John and Jessie’s messy, flawed lives,
Imperfect Union enriches our understanding of the messy, flawed nation they helped create.” —
San Francisco Chronicle
“Throughout this volume are vivid descriptions of the American landscape, some by Frémont, some by Inskeep himself; the author tooled through the Oregon Trail, California, and Nevada as well as consulted primary sources to assemble this narrative, which has the air both of travel writing and biography. But Inskeep’s most powerful descriptions are of the man at the center of his story. . . Inskeep has performed a great service—to the Frémonts, and to history.”
— The Boston Globe
“[Inskeep’s] absorbing tale of the Frémonts and their marriage will fascinate readers, many of whom know John only as the namesake of a local school or street or even their hometown itself . . . In addition to his riveting accounts of Frémont’s peregrinations, Mr. Inskeep is especially effective in bringing to life the challenges posed by mid-19th-century communication, which depended to a great extent on letters that could arrive months after their dispatch . . . Mr. Inskeep keeps his narrative rooted firmly in the past. Nevertheless, that Frémont nearly rode his celebrity all the way to the White House invites comparison with its current occupant, whose fame prior to winning election rested, admittedly, on a considerably slimmer body of work. ” —
The Wall Street Journal
“Steve Inskeep, particularly aware of our current cultural moment in his role as the host of NPR’s ''Morning Edition,'' has given us a history to learn from in his book
Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War. Present are all the things we like in an American tale: frontier adventure, fame and a conflict that’s cast as tragic and romantic. But Inskeep, wise to the lure he has set out, doesn’t give us the story we expect . . . Inskeep deepens the tale beyond the traditional American narrative, giving us an insightful look at two people who seem familiar even all these years later: an ambitious and brilliant woman shackled by her gender and an imperfect dreamer who often comes close to doing the right thing. Within the political theater of this pre-Civil War drama, we just might find ourselves.”
—Bookpage (starred review)
“An insightful and welcome biography of consequential Americans."
“Highly readable . . . A lively introduction to a pair of flawed yet extraordinary figures in the nation''s movement westward.”
Imperfect Union is a fascinating, complex love story, a riveting adventure, and an important, carefully researched history, told with incredible power and skill by one of the country’s best nonfiction writers. What else could you want in a book?”
—Candice Millard, author of Hero of the Empire
“A noteworthy journalist of present events, Steve Inskeep turns his talents to the nineteenth-century past in this dual biography of Jessie and John C. Frémont. The title,
Imperfect Union, is a pun describing both the Union of slave and free states and the union between Jessie and John. The story is engagingly written, rich in new information, and brilliantly fair to the varied characters. Timely in its attention to race, gender, and diversity, this book should fascinate both historians and the general literate public. Inskeep’s account is particularly valuable in its presentation of Jessie Frémont, not only as a wife and mother but as ghostwriter and successful propagandist for her courageous, sometimes blundering, explorer husband. He became the new Republican Party’s first presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln’s predecessor.”
—Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
“Surprising and illuminating, Steve Inskeep’s
Imperfect Union does what great history should do: it tells a story of consequence with verve and with an appreciation of the role of human agency in the broad affairs of a people. The story of the Frèmonts has helped shape our own story. Read this terrific book to find out how.”
—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of America
“This captivating dual biography of John C. Frèmont and his wife Jessie Benton Frèmont portrays the rise and fall of the illegitimate son of an immigrant who became a famous explorer of the American West, a founding father of California as part of the United States, and ran for president as the first candidate of the fledgling Republican party in 1856. John''s career peaked in his early forties while Jesse emerged as the stronger partner in this famous marriage and earned a contemporary reputation as ''the better man of the two,'' an opinion that the reader will likely share.”
—James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
Imperfect Union is a
masterfully written dual biography of how Jessie and John Frémont won the American West. Action-packed stories about the Mexican War, the Oregon Trail, the California wilderness, and the Civil War are bountiful. And the political intrigue surrounding the birth of the Republican Party offered is marvelous. Highly recommended!”
—Douglas Brinkley, Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University and author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
Aid Me with Your Influence
C.J. Fremont, 1813-1840
Charleston and the West
Long before he was famous for wandering the West, John Charles Frémont grew up in a family that wandered the South. They moved restlessly from city to city, beset by scandal, then tragedy, then poverty. The scandal was John''s illegitimate birth.
John''s mother, Anne Pryor, was the offspring of an elite Virginia family. She was married when she fell in love with Charles Fremon, a French immigrant and French teacher. Confronted by her husband in 1811, Anne left him and moved with Charles to Savannah, Georgia, where John was born to them on January 21, 1813. Their life in modest rented rooms was a change for Anne from the plantation houses where she had grown up; Charles Fremon made a bare living by opening a "French and Dancing Academy" for elite young ladies and gentlemen, and taking in boarders who wanted to study his native language. But they were not entirely without help. Anne had come from Virginia with a living token of her aristocratic past: a maid named Hannah, a family slave in her midthirties described as having a "redish complexion." She had an independent spirit. Having accompanied Anne when she followed her heart to Savannah, the maid tried to follow her own heart, and escaped in 1812 with a free black boatman. But all the rules were different for Hannah; she either returned or was captured, and was on hand to help when baby John arrived.
The family faced trouble from the start. The state of Virginia refused to grant a divorce, meaning Anne could not marry the father of her child. Beyond that, something didn''t work for them in Savannah. The baby was only nine months old when they relocated with him to Nashville, where Charles started another French and dancing school. Tennessee also did not hold them long, and they rambled back eastward to Norfolk, Virginia, while two more children, Elizabeth and Francis, were born to them along the way. They no doubt grew poorer with the demands of each new child. Then Charles Fremon died around 1818, leaving Anne with next to nothing, and five-year-old John without any clear memory of his father.
John never said what he felt about the collapse of his family, except indirectly by what he edited out of his life. He did not speak of his father, and was still a youth when he began effacing his father''s name. First, he changed Fremon to Fremont. Then his given name went through an evolution. His earliest known signature, from age fifteen, was written J. Charles Fremont-he was going by Charles, like his father. As late as his eighteenth year, some documents called him Charles Fremont or even reversed his initials to make him C.J. Fremont. But he later put the initials back in order, giving John as his first name. Not until his twenties did he add an accent mark, completing his identity as John C. Frémont.
By his teenage years, when people still called him Charles or C.J., his mother had moved the family to Charleston, South Carolina. C.J. sometimes walked to its harbor, lingering at the Battery, a waterfront promenade, where he could "go and feel the freedom of both eye and thought." He felt that "the breast expands" when "the eye ranges over a broad expanse of country, or in the face of the ocean." He could watch white sails on the horizon as ships approached from Liverpool or Boston, along with black smoke from the regular steamer coming up the coast from Savannah. Approaching ships angled past Fort Sumter, a brick pile that was just getting under construction on a shoal in midwater.
He couldn''t spend much time looking, because his family needed him to work. At thirteen he interrupted his education to work for a lawyer, serving subpoenas. But the youth''s intelligence prompted the lawyer to pay for him to go back to school, the first of many times that Charles would attract an older male sponsor. A schoolteacher became the next sponsor, and recorded a description of his student: "middle size, graceful in manners, rather slender . . . handsome; of a keen piercing eye and noble forehead." The teacher took extra time to instruct him in Greek, passing on a love of Greek plays, and at sixteen Charles was admitted to the College of Charleston, starting as a member of the junior class.
It was a priceless opportunity. The college''s brick building was new, its cornerstone having been laid just three years earlier, and though its roof leaked in the rainy climate it was a vibrant institution. Aware that the top colleges were in the North-Princeton, Harvard, Yale-Charlestonians wanted a good school of their own, and leading citizens became trustees. There were three thousand books in the library, and the size of the student body had recently reached a record high of sixty-two. The college president, Jasper Adams, had been recruited from Brown University in New England, and his curriculum blended readings from ancient Athens and Rome with the ideology of the new American republic. That ideology went on display when students performed at a college exhibition: Charles Fremont recited an "Extract from Mr. Crafts'' Oration, 4th July 1812." William Crafts was a Charleston politician who in that speech declared, "This country appears to have been created on a magnificent plan, destined for the production of great events, and the display of extraordinary powers." Americans would develop "mental and moral greatness" as they met the challenge of spreading across the continent and conquering the West. "Our rivers," C.J. repeated to the audience, "flowing with boundless velocity-our mountains, rising in awful grandeur-our rocks, braving the fury of the elements, are marked with the characters of independence, and proclaim the residence of freemen."
The faculty member who took attendance recorded the way C.J.''s academic career gradually drifted off course. In the fall of 1830, he missed the first few weeks of class. The faculty understood; attendance records noted that "C.J. Fremont" was "teaching in the country by permission." Probably he was helping to support his family by giving private lessons to affluent families, as his father once had. C.J. returned to college a few weeks later, and his high grades suggested that he caught up with his classmates. But he began missing more classes, sometimes vanishing for a week. His behavior stood out, even in a school with generally spotty attendance ("The whole course of . . . Philosophy," one campus record complained, "will be badly understood by the Senior Class on acc. of the frequent absences!"). His professors gave him "frequent reprimands." His friends were mystified. At last, on February 5, 1831, Charles was summoned to meet the faculty. The confrontation (on a Saturday, after Charles had been absent the previous Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) could not have been easy for President Adams, for he knew his students well and sometimes visited their parents. He understood that Charles came from a struggling family. Yet the young man gave no explanation for his absences. Adams informed him that he was expelled, and his academic record ended with the sentence: "C.J. Fremont was dismissed from the college for incorrigible negligence."
The young man shrugged. "I knew that I was a transgressor," he said. The punishment "came like the summer wind," for the "edict only gave me complete freedom . . . I smiled to myself while I listened to words about the disappointment of friends-and the broken career."
What had happened? Charles eventually confessed a secret. He was "passionately in love," cutting class to visit a fourteen-year-old girl. Her name was Cecilia, and she lived with her family in a house on a Charleston street corner. She was one of five brothers and sisters overseen by their mother and grandmother. They had become his surrogate family; he was part of a "little circle of sworn friends" with the brothers and sisters, and together they explored the woods and islands around the harbor. Sometimes they went shooting or picnicking. Once, in a rowboat, they were nearly swamped by the waves around Drunken Dick, a hazardous shoal on which ships sometimes foundered. Returning to her home, John sat with Cecilia in a side room that had a door opening onto the street, allowing them to flee when the grandmother approached. There is no record of what the grandmother thought of this eighteen-year-old college dropout lounging in her house with an adolescent girl. When Charles revealed this relationship in his memoir, he did not declare whether he''d had his first sexual encounter with her, but he did write: "This is an autobiography and it would not be true to itself if I left out the bit of sunshine that made the glory of my youth. . . . I lived in the glow of a passion that now I know extended its refining influence over my whole life."
Who was the young woman who so affected him? He never gave her family name, and said little of her personality, but described her appearance: she had a "clear brunette complexion" with "large dark eyes and abundant blue-black hair." She also had a compelling family history: her people came from Haiti, in the West Indies, and were Creoles, meaning they descended from French colonists who had once ruled Haiti. The French were expelled by a revolt among Haiti''s black slave population, which culminated in 1804 with the massacre of many white residents and the creation of an independent black-led republic. Cecilia''s family were refugees.
Notably, John said Cecilia''s siblings had the same "brunette complexions," dark eyes, and blue-black hair. Although these words could describe French people who identified as white, they easily suggest people of color. Charles did not state their race, yet the implication of his description was clear enough. One of his early biographers was apparently uncomfortable about this description, and solved the problem by effectively putting the young man''s lover in whiteface-rewriting her description to give her "clear ruddy skin" instead of brown. Perhaps the biographer concluded that Fremont misspoke.
A more straightforward explanation is that Charles described her accurately and knew what his description would imply. Haiti had many people of mixed race-and people of all racial identities had to flee Haiti when suspected of aiding the colonizers. And so it''s plausible that C.J. Fremont''s first love was a person of mixed race, as were all her siblings, his close friends. This would help explain why his classmates at Charleston College were baffled about where he went instead of studying: he could not tell them. An interracial relationship was a greater transgression than missing class. Such relations were common, as was obvious from the city''s population of several thousand people of mixed race, known as mulattoes (many of them descended from white slave owners, who did as they liked with enslaved women they controlled). But like Charles''s birth out of wedlock, this could not be discussed.
Charles''s affair with Cecilia did not last. His mother still needed financial help, and before long his time was taken up with minor teaching jobs, including one in which he and a partner taught French. But he had begun dreaming of the wider world-the world he saw from the Battery, or while roaming with Cecilia by the harbor-and his dreams were fueled by a pair of books he had read. One was a book on astronomy, which awakened his interest in celestial navigation. The book was in Dutch, which Charles could not understand, but he could study the "beautifully clear maps of the stars," and he had the math skills to follow the "many examples of astronomical calculations." The other book collected stories of "men who had made themselves famous by brave and noble deeds, or infamous by cruel and base acts." This book reflected the aspirations and the anxieties that churned within C.J. himself.
He found his way out of Charleston with the help of his next mentor: Joel R. Poinsett, a politician, diplomat, and amateur botanist. Appointed the United States minister to Mexico in the 1820s, Poinsett earned two distinctions: he was the first US ambassador to the newly independent country, and while there he sent home a red flower that became known in the United States as the poinsettia. Returning to Charleston in 1829, Poinsett attended the same church as C.J. Fremont''s family and served as a trustee of Charleston College. He was the same age as John''s mother, and took notice of her wayward son.
The first and most important thing that Poinsett did was give C.J. a political orientation. Poinsett was a Unionist, meaning he favored preserving the country as it showed early signs of coming apart. In 1831, the year of Fremont''s affair with Cecilia, Charleston residents held a "states-rights ball," while other South Carolina towns held "disunion dinners" to promote the South breaking away from the North, and citizens of Beaufort performed a "Disunion Drama." The issue was not slavery, at least not directly. Some South Carolina leaders proclaimed their right to nullify what they called the Tariff of Abominations, federal taxes on imported goods that protected American industries but raised the price of products bought by Southern planters. If Fremont''s mentor in these years had been one of South Carolina''s radical thinkers-such as John C. Calhoun, who was serving as vice president of the United States yet secretly aiding the nullifiers-his life might have taken a different course. But Unionists such as Poinsett supported President Andrew Jackson and his administration (one South Carolina paper said the idea that the federal government could not enforce its laws was "beyond patient endurance from a people not absolutely confined in their own mad-houses"). Poinsett also held a nuanced view of slavery. In 1832 he told a visiting French writer named Alexis de Tocqueville that slavery was a disadvantage to the South-that Northern and western states were gaining far more rapidly in population, which meant the South was steadily losing power. It would be a mistake to call him antislavery: he said nothing could be done about slavery, a position that allowed him to accept the status quo while deflecting the questions of disapproving outsiders. But as Charles later said, Poinsett "saw the dark spot on the sun," understanding that the divide over slavery endangered the country.
Young Fremont''s Unionist associations allowed him to perceive an opportunity when it sailed into the harbor. In January 1833, a US Navy warship glided past the unfinished bulk of Fort Sumter and dropped anchor, sent by President Jackson to signal his determination to enforce federal law. While many Charlestonians saw the USS Natchez as a threat, Fremont saw a chance to get away. He learned of a job on board, and Poinsett agreed to recommend him, even though he thought the job-as a shipboard mathematician-was a waste of Fremont''s talent. He would spend long, dull days at sea, tutoring poorly schooled seamen to calculate the figures necessary to take navigational readings by the sun and stars. His abbreviated education and his study of the pictures in the Dutch book he couldn''t read apparently gave him enough knowledge to persuade the ship''s captain that he was qualified.