From his early experience as a railroad surveyor to his political role as the first presidential nominee of the new Republican Party, John C. Frémont was America incarnate: curious, free-wheeling, an explorer of the land and a conqueror of barriers.
From her early days as a senator’s daughter to her pivotal role in promoting American expansion, Jessie Benton Frémont was the 19th-century female activist incarnate: forceful, resourceful, resentful of the conventions of her time.
Together the two formed the imperfect union of Steve Inskeep’s dual biography, a marriage played out as the imperfect union of their country faced its mid-century tests and traumas. He was penniless, she was well-connected, but swiftly their life together was, as Inskeep, the cohost of NPR’s “Morning Edition” put it, ‘’intertwined with both ambition and exploration.’’
Both Frémont and his father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the former newspaper editor and lawyer turned expansionist theorist, instinctively looked west, believing that the westward, as the poet George Berkeley would put it unforgettably, was the course of empire. The young man was an explorer, the older man a visionary.
As Frémont’s fame spread, his reports about his westerly wandering found a quick and devoted audience in the far more sedate east. Inskeep serves as our tour guide as Frémont helps popularize the Oregon Trail and, with it, the great movement across the plains and mountains. He was both pathfinder and mapmaker, adventurer and advocate. A Southerner by birth, he became a Californian by inclination and adoption. ‘’I determined,’’ he said, ‘’to make there a home.’’
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, and one sentence in the middle of the book stands out: ‘’The captain envisioned himself a martyr.’’
One of Inskeep’s theories is that the Frémonts invented celebrity. Perhaps that is true, perhaps it is only a lazy and facile notion for an alluring book subtitle. But Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and the preachers of the Great Awakening have as good a claim on that title as this 19th-century power couple.
Even so, there might be the invention of a specific American type in the Frémonts after all: the publicist.
That’s where Jessie Frémont comes in. For she was as deft a publicist as any operating today for the Kardashians or for Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg. Her husband would write a letter from somewhere out west and she’d have it published, just like that. Here’s an apt example: ‘‘I had to publish almost all your letter,’’ she wrote her peripatetic husband, ‘’and like everything you write it has been reprinted all over the country.’’
Eventually she took on the task of writing herself: ‘’I am not going to let you write anything but your name when you get home.’’ Anything he could do, she could do better, at least on paper.
Jessie soon branched out, becoming a lobbyist and seeker of patronage, for her husband and by extension for herself. Later she defended him in the capital against charges of military mutiny, writing to President James K. Polk, ‘’Do not suppose, Sir, that I lightly interfere in a matter properly belonging to men, but in the absence of Mr. Frémont I attend to his affairs at his request...’’
When Frémont was convicted, Polk granted him clemency. He then headed west to find a route for a transcontinental railroad and eventually to settle in his beloved California, by then the territory’s gold a magnet for settlers and fortune hunters.
Frémont’s importance was as much mythical as real. He wasn’t, for example, the progenitor of the Bear Flag Republic and then the American takeover of California. Inskeep puts it well, and accurately: ‘’He deserved credit, just not the way he imagined; his dreamy thrashing about had triggered a chain of events that led’’ to the American conquest of California.
Indeed, Inskeep is not blind to Frémont’s (many and colorful) faults, especially exaggeration and worship of self. Here’s a particularly astute Inskeep assessment:
‘’As an army officer who routinely went beyond his orders, he’d had scant practice with the culture of obedience that was at the heart of military life. As an officer who neither attended West Point nor even served much around other soldiers he failed to grasp the depth of the military’s tribalism.’’
None of his peccadillos or near-crimes (or maybe crimes themselves) stuck to Frémont, one of the original Teflon figures of our national culture. Elected to a brief tenure in the Senate he eventually headed the first GOP national ticket. Abraham Lincoln, who would be the second Republican presidential nominee, argued this in public in Frémont’s behalf: ‘’You who hate slavery and love freedom, why not ... vote for Frémont?’’
Many did, but not enough. It was not the Republicans’ hour. That would come four years later. But in the 1856 election, as in the vast wild territories of the still-young American nation that he explored, John C. Frémont deserves to be remembered as a pioneer. Jessie, too. Steve Inskeep has performed a great service — to the Frémonts, and to history.
IMPERFECT UNION: HOW JESSIE AND JOHN FRÉMONT MAPPED THE WEST, INVENTED CELEBRITY, AND HELPED CAUSE THE CIVIL WAR
By Steve Inskeep
Penguin, 480 pp., $32
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.