Imperfect Union
Steve Inskeep  2020 449 pgs

It is amazing that so much primary material related to John Fremont has survived from the mid-19th Century.  Steven Inskeep has done a marvelous amount of research, seemingly reading all of that primary material.   He extracts their story from newspapers and a seeming voluminous amount of letters as well as other sources.

John C. Fremont was a famous explorer as most know, with many towns, schools, etc. named for him. Less well known is that he was the first Republican presidential candidate, four years before Abraham Lincoln, in 1856.  Also less well known is that he had a ranch in California near Mariposa.  Very few know is that he crossed Donner Summit, during his 1845 3rd expedition, and so earned a place in the Heirloom.

Although of the three maps of the five expeditions included in the book, the map of the 3rd is only ¼ the size of the others, Inskeep recoups that error by starting his introduction with the 3rd expedition, the one over Donner Summit.

John C. Fremont became a “social and political phenomenon of a kind we associate with modern celebrity culture.”  At one time he was the most popular, or close to the most popular, man in the United States.  Ironically he doesn’t seem particularly competent and certainly had a lot of failings.  He was impetuous, arrogant, prideful, reckless, stubborn, hypocritical, and indecisive.  He was court marshaled and convicted for not following orders and he was relieved of command a couple of times by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.  He and his men killed Indians and  non-combatants.  He helped instigate war in California. He put men in jail without charge. Luck got him a fortune in gold during the Gold Rush but he died in very reduced circumstances.

Fremot became famous due to his accomplishments as an explorer, the conquest of California, his evocative reports, and his wife.  This book is really a double biography of two people, John and Jessie Fremont.  Without Jessie, John would have been a failure.  She “amplified his talent for self-promotion, working… to publicize his journeys. She became his political adviser. She attracted talented you men to his circle, promoted friends, and lashed out at enemies.”

The Fremonts took the stage of American history at a divisive time –the lead up to the Civil War.  Fremont’s explorations upset the balance of slave and free states and so contributed to the war and creation of today’s United States.

John Fremont was born illegitimately to poor unmarried parents.  He rose from poverty to be educated until he was expelled from college for “incorrigible negligence.” That “negligence” was a girl.  He went to sea for awhile and then began his rise using his uncanny ability to choose mentors who taught him and gave him opportunities. From one of those mentors he also got a wife when he eloped with Senator Thomas Hart Benton’s 17 year old daughter. As a member of a survey party he was introduced to the west.  He joined the Army as a second lieutenant in 1838 with a mentor’s help.  As a topographical engineer  he was charged with filling in some of the blanks on the map of what would become the Continental United States. That he did over five western expeditions.

Jessie Fremont had the opposite background.  She came from a large and distinguished family. She was brought up in various places where her senator father had business and/or houses, including Washington D.C. There she met the powerful people of the time.  She was introduced to the west by her father and his ambitions for it and the country.

It is through the stories of Fremont’s western expeditions that we learn his character and how Jessie turned the liabilities of the various stories into public relations that would increase his fame and eventually propel him to the candidacy for the presidency of the United States.  The Fremonts’ story is told in chapters of a couple of years’ increments each.  Fame increased with each trip west, the newspaper reporting that followed, and then the reports that were published, dictated by John and written by Jessie.

The book also covers some contemporary politics: elections, events leading to the war with Mexico, nativist sentiment, slavery, the pressure to enlarge the country, etc.  Of particular interest for us is the train of events leading to Mexico’s loss of California in which Fremont played a major part, but which also got him convicted in a court marshal.  Ironically Fremont was pretty indecisive during the whole affair until it came time to accept the orders of a newly arrived general. He preferred the previous commander, a naval admiral, who had named Fremont governor.

John Fremont was an unsavory character but he overcame the deficit with a brilliant and energetic young wife, luck, and good public relations.  Coupled with his determination it was enough to make him famous and respected.