new arrival Imperfect Union: How Jessie wholesale and John Frémont high quality Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War sale

new arrival Imperfect Union: How Jessie wholesale and John Frémont high quality Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War sale

new arrival Imperfect Union: How Jessie wholesale and John Frémont high quality Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War sale

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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.

Review

“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."  Booklist

“Highly readable . . . A lively introduction to a pair of flawed yet extraordinary figures in the nation''s movement westward.”  Kirkus  

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
 
“Steve Inskeep’s 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
 
 

About the Author

Steve Inskeep is a cohost of NPR’s  Morning Edition, the most widely heard radio program in the United States, and of NPR’s Up First, one of the nation’s most popular podcasts. His reporting has taken him across the United States, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Pakistan, and China. His search for the full story behind the news has led him to history; he is the author of Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi and Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab, both published by Penguin Press .

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

 

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.

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Angie Boyter
5.0 out of 5 stars
A perfect union of biography and history
Reviewed in the United States on January 14, 2020
Imperfect Union is the story of John and Jessie Fremont, a couple who had a significant impact in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. It is also the story of the imperfect union among the states themselves and how controversies about slavery and also... See more
Imperfect Union is the story of John and Jessie Fremont, a couple who had a significant impact in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. It is also the story of the imperfect union among the states themselves and how controversies about slavery and also immigration (sound familiar?) led to the Civil War. It tells of a third “imperfect union” from the period, too, and that was the chasm between the eastern part of the continent and the west. Uniting the continent was the focus of most of John Fremont’s efforts and the goal of his many explorations, as he dreamed of opening the doors to trade with Asia across the Pacific from California.
I have enjoyed listening to Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition for many years, but the question in my mind was: can he write? And, very important for a nonfiction book on history, has he done careful research so he can provide the details that will make the people and the era come alive and enable him to make generalizations about the period that will be credible? I am delighted to report that the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes”. The wealth of primary sources consulted and cited is impressive, and the results are presented very well.
John and Jessie’s story is well-told and gave me a sense of them as people as well as a much better acquaintance with what John contributed to our history. Those more knowledgeable with history than I am might have known that John was the first presidential nominee of the new Republican party, but how many know that he named the San Francisco harbor the Golden Gate? The personal story was to me as interesting as a novel, and I was a bit sorry there was not even more about John and Jessie as a couple, but there is only so much room in one book. Plus it is clear that Inskeep was trying to be true to his sources, and there is only so much that can be inferred about their lives even from personal journals.
The era explored in this book was an exciting one, with technological innovations so radical that it reminds me of our own time. Before the telegraph was invented, for example, it would take many days to learn how other states had voted in an election. Congress did not even establish a single day for the national presidential election until 1845. After Samuel Morse, people in cities could find out election results in a matter of hours. Inskeep does an excellent job of pointing out these innovations and their effects.
The big political issue during this period, of course, was slavery. Here again the book gives good insights. The issue was more complex than is often presented. For example, there are the “nativists”, who were opposed to many groups like the Irish and Italians who were immigrating in larger numbers. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the nativists were also abolitionists for the same reason they opposed the immigrants: their goal was to protect the livelihood of the working man, which was threatened by slaves as well as immigrants.
One thing that is not covered in the book is another of its good points. As I read the book, I could see many parallels between that period and our own. Inskeep does not, however, spell these out. They will be obvious to the discerning reader and actually (in my case anyway) increase the reader’s enjoyment as you perceive them yourself. It also will keep the book from sounded dated in a few years.
Most people have heard of John Fremont, who has mountain peaks and towns named after him, but few people know much about why he was famous. This book will tell you why and give you the bigger picture of the era as well. Whether you are a history buff or not, there is a lot to enjoy and a lot to learn in Imperfect Union.
My thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an advance review copy of this book.
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Peter M. Beck
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Fremont Doesn''t Quite Come Into Focus
Reviewed in the United States on June 7, 2020
How could I not love a book about a fearless explorer who almost becomes president of the U.S. on the eve of the Civil War? A book written by the wonderful host of my favorite radio show, NPR’s “Morning Edition” no less. On top of that, my father’s house is located on our... See more
How could I not love a book about a fearless explorer who almost becomes president of the U.S. on the eve of the Civil War? A book written by the wonderful host of my favorite radio show, NPR’s “Morning Edition” no less. On top of that, my father’s house is located on our hero’s former property! Unfortunately, Steve Inskeep makes it painfully clear that John Fremont was not as impressive as I had expected. Inskeep also needed more time to bring his protagonist into focus.

Despite spending over 20 years in California public schools and teaching a class on California government, I had no idea that John Fremont played a critical role in snatching the Golden Gate (he coined the name) from Mexico until I read “Imperfect Union.” I only became aware of Fremont while reading Donald’s masterful “A. Lincoln” and Chernow’s brilliant “Grant.” Fremont fell two states short of defeating James Buchanan in 1856 and got fired twice by Lincoln.

Inskeep casts a wide net. “Imperfect Union” is not only a dual biography of Fremont and his colorful and capable wife Jessie. Inskeep also includes mini-biographies of Jessie’s father, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, Fremont’s multi-ethnic/lingual teams, his contemporaries and even the historical context--all in 353 pages. This forces Inskeep to gloss over major portions of the Fremonts’ lives so he focuses on the first 15 years of their marriage (1841-1856).

Fremont became famous based on his accounts of searching for the best routes to Oregon and California, which should make him the patron saint of the “State of Jefferson” nuts. He is credited with inspiring the Mormons to settle in Utah and tens of thousands of pioneers to move West. Yet, Fremont regularly disobeyed his superiors and needlessly put his men’s lives at risk. Insisting on crossing the Rockies and Sierras in winter led to the deaths of up to one-third of his men. The only Spaniards Fremont killed to wrest control of California were three innocent civilians. Fremont and his wife were the masters of image control and exaggeration. Newspapers referred to him as the most important American since George Washington. Unfortunately, we only get brief glimpses of who the Fremonts really were. For such public figures, they often kept their thoughts, opinions and even actions hidden, forcing Inskeep to speculate.

Even during the 15 years Inskeep focuses on, he glosses over important aspects of their lives. Fremont bought 70 square miles of land in the Sierra foothills sight unseen in 1847 for $3000. When gold was discovered on the land during the Gold Rush, the Fremonts became millionaires. Unfortunately, Inskeep does not describe the beauty of Las Mariposas (“the butterflies”) or even mention the time the Fremonts spent living there and becoming advocates for nearby Yosemite. We learn almost nothing about the Fremonts’ five children or what kind of father John was. I also would have loved to have learned more about his relationship with Kit Carson. Because Inskeep ends his narrative in 1856, we don’t learn anything about Fremont’s Civil War failures or how and when he lost Las Mariposas.

Like the Fremonts, Inskeep can’t resist a bit of hyperbole. To his credit, Inskeep points out the Fremonts’ efforts to exaggerate John’s accomplishments and minimize his failures. Yet, the title of Inskeep’s book is misleading. John did map important areas of the West, but he and Jessie by no means “invented celebrity” and did not “help cause the Civil War.” John was the Republicans’ first presidential candidate in 1856, but back then, candidates did not “run” for office. They stayed out of the public eye and let others campaign for them. Fremont issued exactly one statement calling for the abolition of slavery that year, but when he lost the election, he withdrew from politics and moved back to California.

Inskeep is thorough when it comes to maps, but the photographs and captions feel like an afterthought. There is not a single good likeness of Fremont (such as his wife’s favorite painting) or image of his expeditions. Instead, we get pages of minor figures and buildings and a full page of Frederick Douglass, even though he never interacted with Fremont.

Inskeep does a good job of describing Fremont’s five expeditions and tracks down some great primary and secondary sources. The letters John receives from Jessie are touching. Fremont has inspired me to pan for gold in the seasonal creek that runs through my father’s six acres of oaks and pine trees. I can also tell you about the Bear Flag Revolt (it wasn’t) and the Know Nothings (the precursors to Trump Republicans). However, Inskeep tries to cover too much ground in too few pages. I am sure he will be a great historian once he can devote himself to the task, but I don’t want him to leave NPR too soon. “Morning Edition” is an island of facts and moderation in the talk radio cesspool.
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3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Glitch in Kindle version
Reviewed in the United States on January 25, 2020
When I first opened Imperfect Union on my Kindle, it happily informed me that I was in for 12 hours of reading time. So I settled down anticipating a big, meaty narrrative about the middle decades of 19th century American history. When I finished, much sooner than expected,... See more
When I first opened Imperfect Union on my Kindle, it happily informed me that I was in for 12 hours of reading time. So I settled down anticipating a big, meaty narrrative about the middle decades of 19th century American history. When I finished, much sooner than expected, Kindle told me there were 5 hours still to come. Turns out my Kindle version contained two copies of the same book. Okay, not the author''s fault, but I was still left disappointed because the topic--John and Jessie Fremont against the panorama of a fascinating historical moment--really deserved another 300 pages. Imperfect Union is an enjoyable read and the history accurate, but I was left wanting to know much more about both John and Jessie on a personal level. What made them tick?
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amachinist
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Finding the Truth About John Frémont?
Reviewed in the United States on January 29, 2020
John C. Frémont''s life spanned almost the entire 19th century (1813-1890). It was a very active period in the United States including westward expansion and a policy of "Manifest Destiny", two wars, the completion of the railroad, the Gold Rush, and the formation of both... See more
John C. Frémont''s life spanned almost the entire 19th century (1813-1890). It was a very active period in the United States including westward expansion and a policy of "Manifest Destiny", two wars, the completion of the railroad, the Gold Rush, and the formation of both the State of California and the Republican Party. Right from the onset, the reader is left to wonder, "Who or what is the real John Frémont?" As a young man, to hide his illegitimate birth, he changes his surname from Fremon to the more exotic Frémont. Through the generosity of a benefactor, he enrolls in the College of Charleston. He does so well, John is asked to teach mathematics even though he had not matriculated. He abruptly leaves that post to become a cartographer for an expedition to find pathways across the Rocky Mountains to the West. He has no training for the job. Frémont leads four expeditions to the West, especially to explore California. Sometimes, due to harsh winter conditions and undiplomatic encounters with Native Americans and Mexican settlers, Frémont unnecessarily endangers the lives of his companions and pack animals.

Impetuously, he elopes with Jessie Benton, daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Benton. (She was 17 and he hid his age of 28 from his wife.) Jessie and John lived apart for long periods of time during both his western expeditions and his service in the US Army, but they wrote many letters. John''s descriptions of his exploits might have been, at times, aggrandized to impress his wife and Mrs. Frémont, added to the narratives to enhance her husband''s reputation with both politicians and the public. She was her husband''s most ardent promoter.

Though John fought valiantly in both the Mexican American War and the Civil War on the Union side, he was courtmartialed and dishonorably discharged for insubordination during both conflicts. Despite this, he was appointed as California''s first senator and Arizona''s first governor. In 1856 John Frémont became the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party. He chose not to campaign and lost to John Buchanan. Though gold was found on John''s California property, law suits and investments in the Southern Pacific Railroad during the Panic of 1873, left the Frémont family, impoverished.

Inskeep uses many resources to uncover the true story of John C. Frémont, but it is difficult to parse out the fact from the fiction created around this impetuous, larger than life figure. His adoring wife helped create and perpetuate his persona long after his death. Perhaps the use of footnotes in each chapter rather than endnotes along with photos and diagrams within the text rather than at the end, might have helped to clarify the narrative. It is indeed a jam-packed era of American history which Inskeep lays before the reader.
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Gary Moreau, Author
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
They drew the map of America''s Manifest Destiny
Reviewed in the United States on February 4, 2020
The mid-19th Century American push westward was one of the defining moments of American history. Not only did it provide room for expansion for a growing nation, it created the possibility of a land bridge between Europe and Asia, and it ultimately led to the Civil War and... See more
The mid-19th Century American push westward was one of the defining moments of American history. Not only did it provide room for expansion for a growing nation, it created the possibility of a land bridge between Europe and Asia, and it ultimately led to the Civil War and the end of slavery, since with expansion came an assault on the delicate balance between slave owning and free states that previously existed.

In the midst of it all, what columnist and editor John L. O’Sullivan coined as America’s Manifest Destiny, were two people you’ve probably never heard of - John and Jessie Fremont. He, an illegitimate son of a mother born to southern aristocracy, and she, the daughter of a famous US Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, came from opposite worlds to be the leading authors, if not the architects, of the great westward expansion.

John was a restless, hard-driving explorer and cartographer who mapped the west from Missouri to Oregon and down to California, the latter illegally since California was still part of Mexico at the time and he did not have permission to even enter the territory. He never gave up and he could be ruthless, earning both praise and contempt from the diverse men, including Kit Carson, who joined his expeditions.

Jessie was the politician, an equally hard-driving woman who refused to take no for an answer and did not hesitate to take the most direct route to what she wanted, for both herself and for John, often rustling feathers along the way, greatly blurring the line that then delineated the commonly accepted realms of women and men.

The marriage was cold but each adored and admired the other. John, however, was too distant and too frequently gone to have pursued much of a home life. Having said that, the characters are not really developed enough for us to make a judgment on such matters. The book turns on events and accomplishments more than the inner souls of the protagonists. Likely, this is, in part, due to a lack of source material since it would appear the pair was among the least studied of America’s most influential individuals.

John was ultimately nominated to be the presidential candidate of the newly-formed Republican Party in 1856, the same party that Lincoln would take to the White House four years later, in part due to Manifest Destiny and the resulting fact that the Southern slave-holding states no longer held the electoral power to block a candidate who did not fully support their commitment to slavery. John, however, lost to James Buchanan, a childhood neighbor of Jessie, who failed to take any comprehensible stand on the issue of the day.

The issues of the day were, in fact, eerily prescient of the same issues which divide America so profoundly today. Slavery, immigration, and Catholicism divided the country. And since slavery was about both economics and racism, everything, in the end, turned on nativism and the fear of foreigners and their impact on the balance of power in a country wherein only white land-owning males were given the vote by many states at the nation’s birth.

Both John and Jessie were anti-slavery, although John chose a position on the issue during his presidential campaign that didn’t quite align with abolition or the position that Lincoln would ultimately adopt. They were also both strong proponents of religious freedom and against social inequity. It might be a stretch, however, to say that John was a principled man. He was a doer and a pragmatist. He flaunted authority and didn’t always treat others with respect and virtue if they stood in the way of what he wanted.

Jessie was the more ideological of the two. She wrote that her time in the West “rubbed out many little prejudices, and fitted [me] better than any reading could have done to comprehend the necessary differences and equal merits of differing peoples, and that although different, each could be right.”

It’s a quick and entertaining read. The author, to his credit, does not slow down the narrative with an over-abundance of names, dates, and other trivia that bogs down so many books of history. As noted, I would have liked a bit more character development but that doesn’t undermine what is there.

Prepare to come away a bit sad, however. America was built on imperialism, through the use of force when necessary. Manifest Destiny was, in many ways, a racist creed, as the Native Americans, the blacks, the Catholics, the Mexicans, and any of the many immigrants of the day, trying to escape tyranny and hardship for a better life, learned first hand.

My favorite quote, however, was again from Jessie. She wrote, “Perhaps the sharpest lesson of life is that we outlast so much-even ourselves-so that one, looking back, might say, ‘When I died the first time…’” As an aging man I know exactly what she means.
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Brian Lewis
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Manifest Destiny
Reviewed in the United States on February 9, 2020
This is a solid biography of John and Jessie Fremont, a "power couple" in the years of westward expansion and the oncoming of the Civil War. The book gives a reliable accounting of places and events, although I am not sure we get into the heads of the couple the way we do... See more
This is a solid biography of John and Jessie Fremont, a "power couple" in the years of westward expansion and the oncoming of the Civil War. The book gives a reliable accounting of places and events, although I am not sure we get into the heads of the couple the way we do in truly great biographies.

John was an explorer who mapped out much of the American West, particularly California. Jessie Fremont, his wife, but a force in her own right, and also the daughter of a senator, and was far more politically savvy. She could probably warrant a separate biography from someone like, say Candice Millard. Jessie''s sections are the most interesting of the book, although the author certainly does a great job of describing John Fremont''s explorations in the West.

The Fremonts were more famous in their time than they are now, their legacies fading from the overwhelming importance of the Civil War. Even Inskeep''s subtitle seems to exaggerate their importance. They certainly mapped the West but it is hard to see how their activity helped cause the Civil War. As for inventing celebrity, Robert Wilson''s biography, Barnum speaks to that more directly.

Still, a strong biography of a couple, and certainly recommended to those with an interest in the development of the American West.
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Malarkey
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
American Idols
Reviewed in the United States on May 4, 2020
Steve Inskeep rescues Jessie Benton Frémont from unfair obscurity and elevates John Frémont from the purgatory of brief mentions in history textbooks to give this modern couple their due as consequential figures in America’s story. John Frémont led expeditions... See more
Steve Inskeep rescues Jessie Benton Frémont from unfair obscurity and elevates John Frémont from the purgatory of brief mentions in history textbooks to give this modern couple their due as consequential figures in America’s story.

John Frémont led expeditions across the West and had a hand in conquering California for the United States. Jessie took charge of writing colorful accounts of his adventures, making him famous and sparking an avalanche of settlers. Inskeep observes that the stories on which they collaborated portray John as “a democratic everyman waging civilization’s fight against nature—often in peril, at times overmatched, but never giving up.”

Years later, John was the last man standing in the competition to become the first Republican nominee for president, and Jessie—ambitious, outspoken, savvy and as popular as John, if not more so—served as a key figure in the inner circle of her husband’s campaign.

With the elements of an exhaustively researched biography, an action-adventure story, and a political tell-all, Imperfect Union tells how Jesse and John ignited a mass migration of settlers to the West, helped set in motion the events that led to the Civil War, and raised the profile of the women’s rights movement. The story of the Frémonts helps explain how we got here and illuminates matters of racism, gender inequality and nativism that vex the country to this day.

The award-winning host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and the NPR podcast Up First, Inskeep is a graduate of Morehead State University.

(This review first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Kentucky Monthly magazine.)

© 2020 Vested Interest Publications
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Steve Procko
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A story of nineteenth century celebrity
Reviewed in the United States on August 7, 2021
NPR''s Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep has written a wonderful biography on Jessie and John Frémont. To me Frémont is a noted American buried in the fog of the 19th century, who''s success was marked by towns and streets that were memorialized in his name. This is the... See more
NPR''s Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep has written a wonderful biography on Jessie and John Frémont. To me Frémont is a noted American buried in the fog of the 19th century, who''s success was marked by towns and streets that were memorialized in his name. This is the story of celebrity.

Frémont, was the Republican Party''s first presidential candidate in 1856 running and losing to James Buchanan–Four years later, it became the party of Lincoln. Inskeep sets the backstory to this pivotal event telling of the growth of Frémont''s celebrity in the preceding decades.

Newspapers in the east salivated at every journey Frémont made into the unknown western wilderness. It made him into a celebrity-superstar for his time. Celebrity also made him a presidential candidate, along with his wife Jessie''s political savvy.

Celebrity leading to presidential ambition ironically bookends to where we are today. History does repeat itself.
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Charles S.
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Great read.
Reviewed in Canada on March 11, 2020
A fascinating account of a very accomplished couple. Pertinent information that is remarkably relevant today—racism, American imperialism, battles with Mexico, xenophobia.
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