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How an Antebellum Power Couple Transformed America

How an Antebellum Power Couple Transformed America

The subtitle of Imperfect Union, Steve Inskeep’s immersive tale of frontier adventure, political intrigue, and celebrity culture in antebellum America, makes plenty of bold promises. Nineteenth-century power couple Jessie and John Frémont, the author asserts, not only “mapped the west” as their country claimed its Pacific coast in the years before the Civil War – their political views and access to Washington powerbrokers “helped cause” the rupture between North and South. And they managed these feats in a thoroughly modern way, by “inventing celebrity” and using the growing power of the mass media to promote their brand and manipulate public opinion.

Inskeep – cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition and author of Jacksonland, a 2015 account of the forced removal of the Cherokee people – delivers on each of these promises. He recreates America’s relentless westward expansion and descent into fratricide in crisp detail and with a sense of foreboding, much like watching a train wreck unfold in slow-motion. All the while he keeps his lens tightly focused on the Frémonts, the senator’s daughter and the army officer whose exploits almost carried them to the White House. “Imperfect Union is the story of the American union,” Inskeep writes, “as seen through the Frémonts’ union.”

It was an alliance far stronger than the tenuous bonds holding America together in the 1840s. Jessie Benton rebelled against the gender norms of the era in one of the few ways a woman with social standing could – by marrying not for money or status, but for love. Her choice was a man as unconventional and ambitious as she was. Southern-born and restless for adventure, John joined the army’s survey corps as a mapmaker. His fame grew as he led risky, well-publicized expeditions searching for routes through the western mountains to the Pacific. He described the mouth of San Francisco’s fine harbor as a “golden gate” to the riches of Asia, and the name stuck.

Jessie’s father, Thomas Hart Benton, was a Missouri senator who became John’s patron and saw his son-in-law as a means to achieve his cherished goal of ensuring America spanned from sea to sea. Frémont’s government-backed exploration of the Oregon Trail helped to stave off the British, who were threatening to push the border of present-day Canada southward. Then, in a clandestine mission that flouted Mexican sovereignty, he led a small band of men into the province of California as the Mexican-American War loomed. The weak show of force was sufficient to encourage an uprising of American settlers in 1846 and to secure California as a future state.

John, an impetuous figure whose poor judgment often put his men in danger (11 starved or froze to death during a disastrous winter foray into the mountains in 1849) could easily dominate this story. But Inskeep ensures Jessie Frémont is never overshadowed. As driven and media-savvy as her husband, she used her Washington connections to promote his career. “Self-possessed, well-informed, and well-connected,” he writes, she became his “defender and spokeswoman,” forwarding his letters from the frontier to newspaper editors and transcribing embellished accounts of his adventures.

Lurking in the background of this riveting, lavishly researched account is the defining, divisive issue of the times: slavery. America’s insatiable hunger for territory, Inskeep reminds us, drove the country ever-closer to civil war. John Frémont’s discoveries and the Mexican War’s land grabs meant new states would be added to the Union, upsetting the uneasy balance between free and slaveholding states. These distant times “can feel eerily familiar,” Inskeep notes, beset as they were by racial hatred, bitter political divisions, and a backlash against immigrants.

These distant times “can feel eerily familiar,” Inskeep notes, beset as they were by racial hatred, bitter political divisions, and a backlash against immigrants. America was undergoing rapid technological change as well – Samuel Morse’s telegraph was as transformative and disruptive in its time as the internet has been in ours.   

Frémont’s fame catapulted him into politics, but with little success. After serving briefly as a California senator, he became the presidential candidate for the newly formed, anti-slavery Republican Party. Jessie helped to run his campaign and her stature in Washington eclipsed his and one observer considered her “the better man of the two.” Frémont carried 11 states but lost the 1856 election to Democrat James Buchanan.

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When the Civil War broke out, Abraham Lincoln put Frémont in charge of the Union Army in the West. While he lasted less than a year, his decision to give a command to an overlooked officer named Ulysses S. Grant made up for missteps and battlefield defeats. Disaffected Republicans nominated him to oppose Lincoln in 1864, but he bowed out of a second presidential race weeks before the election. His public career ended in 1881 after a stint as governor of the Arizona Territory.

Inskeep tells the Frémonts’ story with razor-sharp insight and a narrative drive that draws in readers and keeps the pages turning. While the titles President and First Lady eluded this ambitious couple, Imperfect Union stakes their claim as leaders in the battle against slavery and as key players in the rapid growth and tumultuous politics of nineteenth-century America.

Cover image of Imperfect Union

Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War
By Steve Inskeep
Penguin Press
Published January 14, 2020

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