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.
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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: An ambitious couple with visions of grandeur mount a single-minded bid for public office. In this case, we’re talking about the curious lives of 19th-century explorer John Frémont—who gained the nickname “Pathfinder” for his travels in the uncharted American West—and his politically savvy wife, Jessie, the brilliant and well-connected daughter of a prominent senator. As the first national candidate for the newly formed Republican party, John was completely in over his head, and his problems just kept mounting. NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep’s meticulously researched biography of the Frémonts reads like a fascinating novel about politics and celebrity, turning the wealthy couple’s boundless ambitions into a compelling parable about the rogue, unruly side of the American spirit.
NPR host Inskeep (Jacksonland) charts John Fr mont's rise from an impoverished, peripatetic childhood in the American South to become a celebrated Western explorer and the Republican Party's first-ever presidential nominee in this scrupulously researched history. Fr mont's five mid-19th-century expeditions including treks from the Great Plains to Oregon, and into California on the eve of the Mexican-American War earned him nationwide acclaim as an embodiment of the country's "manifest destiny," according to Inskeep, who examines the era's emerging political fissures over slavery and westward expansion with nuance. He reveals how Fr mont's wife, Jessie Benton Fr mont, daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, helped to write her husband's reports on his explorations, "amplified his talent for self-promotion," and guided his sometimes naive political instincts. Quoting a contemporary rival's assessment that Jessie was "the better man of the two," Inskeep discusses how her prominent role in Fr mont's 1856 presidential campaign provided inspiration for the women's suffrage movement. This sweeping yet fine-grained account contextualizes the issues facing pre Civil War America without losing sight of the interpersonal dynamics at the heart of the narrative. History buffs will savor Inskeep's fluid, multifaceted approach to the subject.