• A cover of a book with U.S. Flags

      “Imperfect Union” Book (Photo – Scott Phelps)

      One book describes how Jessie and John Frémont mapped the West, invented celebrity, and helped cause the Civil War.

      By Scott Phelps

      I picked up this book one day for a trip to the beach, and I found it very illuminating. I certainly knew of John C. Frémont’s expeditions to map a way to the west coast, and the various streets and city named after him in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I didn’t know about his marriage or how he connected with the politics of the time.

      The book delves much into how Jessie Benton, as the daughter of a U. S. Senator, and a very accomplished and strong-willed woman, played an important role in the career of her husband. This included the benefits of the influence of her very well-connected father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton. The latter’s long service in the Senate —- he was the first to serve five terms — from 1821-1851— and strong belief in the western expansion of the United States helped with getting support for his son-in-law’s many expeditions to the west. Jessie, raised at her father’s side, was a strong supporter of her husband’s expeditions, and wrote glowing reports of his exploits for the newspapers of the day. Sometimes these articles appeared without noting that she was the author. Because of his expeditions and her writing about them, they became one of the first popular, celebrity couples in the country.

      While Frémont’s many expeditions were arduous and dangerous, and members of his party were killed or died on the journeys, the book does not portray Frémont as a good leader. Indeed, at times his decisions were the result of stubbornness rather than concern for the good of the members of his party. There were many instances of his party killing Native Americans, sometimes in self-defense and sometimes in their villages. His presence during the United States’ conquest of California from Mexico was not depicted as a leadership role, but rather a tangential one. He was in the right place at the right time though, and his wealth became substantial as he was able to purchase very cheaply land on which gold was discovered.

      He had a very brief tenure as a U. S. Senator from the new state of California, less than one year. He was the Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1856. In this campaign, at a time of deep division in the country, there were political attacks that are not that different from the politics that we see in the current day. He was accused of being a radical abolitionist by the Democrats because he was anti-slavery. Sadly, Jessie’s husband would not abandon his Democratic Party roots and refused to support his son-in-law. Neither he nor Jessie were associated with the abolitionist movement. He put forward the middle ground of the time, which was that slavery should be left alone in the states where it existed, but it should not be expanded into the new territories to the west. He was also accused of being a Catholic, and the third party in the election, the Know Nothings, campaigned on nativism and anti-Catholic immigration. Although he was not a Catholic, he refused to address that accusation since he felt that religion was a personal issue, and this may have cost him in the election. In addition, he was also attacked for the circumstances of his birth, as his mother was not married at the time. In this election, his wife was very popular, and his campaign’s slogan was “Frémont and Jessie too!” Even though Frémont lost, Jessie retained her unusually prominent status for a woman of that time.

      President Lincoln appointed Frémont Commander of the Department of the West in 1861. Later in the Civil War, Lincoln asked him to withdraw an emancipation of slaves clause from a proclamation Frémont had issued for Missouri, without authorization from Lincoln. Jessie traveled to Washington to appeal the decision to Lincoln. Lincoln didn’t budge, and when Frémont refused to modify the proclamation, this, and a negative report on his conduct as commander in St. Louis led to his removal by Lincoln. In 1864 he was the nominee for President under the Radical Democracy Party. An arrangement was made for Frémont to quit the race, and in exchange, Lincoln removed one of Frémont’s enemies from St. Louis from his cabinet.

      In later years, Frémont invested heavily in railroad stocks and then lost most of his wealth in the Panic of 1873. He and Jessie wrote books about his expeditions to earn a living, and he also found support and jobs in the national government. He was appointed the governor of Arizona in 1878. He died in New York in 1890, only 3 months after being allowed to resign from the army with a pension. After his death, Jessie was granted a widow’s pension of $2000 a year by Congress because of her husband’s valued services, and she was given a house in Los Angeles by a committee of ladies of the City as a token of their great regard. She died there in 1902.


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