Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep dicsusses new book, "Imperfect Union"

Jan 28, 2020

Steve Inskeep, co-host NPR's Morning Edition
Credit NPR.org

Steve Inskeep morning edition co-host historian author of the new book is Imperfect Union: How Jesse in John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity and Helped Cause the Civil War. I like how you compartmentalize this. Thank you. So, let's start out with part one of that is mapping the West if my history is correct you go back to the 1800's and there was this doctrine of Manifest Destiny. So, where do they fit in?

The 3 months are people out of that time John Charles Fremont was an Explorer of the American West and went on one of his expeditions, the very summer that a newspaper man who wrote the phrase of manifest destiny manifest meeting obvious, he met America's obvious destiny to spread all the way across the continent to the Pacific Freeman had a lot to do with that mapping the Oregon Trail going to what was then called the Oregon country going into Mexican controlled California and helping to take it over, but I want to mention that this explore did not actually discovered that much that was new his mission really was publicity making the West more famous and enticing more Americans to move there so that the United States could take it over.

Well, he also has a wife Jessie where does she fit into the story.

Jessie Benton Fremont is a major reason that we've ever heard of John Charles Fremont this famous Explorer he was a relatively penniless us Army lieutenant with some experience in the West when he fell in love with and he loped with this 17 year-old daughter of a powerful United States senator and she was ambitious and well educated and wanted to do things that only men were supposed to do like get involved in politics and she ended up operating through him and when I said publicity was the point it was the idea of Jesse's father the senator to send to John Fremont out to the West this way and it was often Jesse's work to publicize him he would come back from his expeditions and write these amazing narrative of his adventures and she would help him write them as a secretary or an editor or sometimes more of a writing partner occasionally even a ghostwriter here and there and she would also be his political representative going in talking with senators and presidents that she had known since she was a girl even though she was a girl or young woman. Someone who was half the age of us senators and presidents that that she would go in sometimes argue with when she had a point to make.

So family and having that connection carries the day here you mention inventing celebrity in the title there this political power couple of the time.

Yeah, absolutely true. And it was not unusual to have an influential woman in Washington. You can go back to the very beginnings of the country and women are doing significant things my late colleague Cokie Roberts wrote entire books on that subject what was unusual about Jessie Benton Fremont was fame that this person who worked behind the scenes to make her husband extremely famous eventually became quite famous herself. She was well known first as a public defender of her husband, but also as an accomplished Lady as they would have said in the newspaper stand who thanks to her father had been well educated and learn multiple languages and to chat with ambassadors in what we now call the White House chap with investors from different countries in their native languages and could challenge president of the United States in an argument she was known and in 1856 when John Charles Fremont ran for president first-ever candidate of the Republican Party Jesse became a part of the campaign and a symbol of what the campaign was about and it was almost like a husband and wife are running for president.

We always have to put people in time and place in for them how news travel we had railroads newspapers how well known would they have been in both the North and the South.

They were brilliant at working the system of the time which was rapidly becoming more connected. There was a very slow national conversation in the early 1840's. There were newspapers across the country and they might mailed copies of the paper to each other and reprint other people's articles, so news which spread but slowly that was rapidly accelerating weekly papers are becoming daily papers and the Telegraph was successfully demonstrated in 1844 and quickly spread across the country and you suddenly had a rapid fire almost simultaneous national conversation which people at the time I understood was totally knew when I read the original accounts of what was going on at that time I realized that I'm looking at the dawn of the age that we're living in now this age of instant communication and instant news updates, sometimes emotionally upsetting news updates and things move so fast that it is difficult for us as human beings to process what's going on and to respond to it rationally and you mentioned the North and the South was a divided country that not exactly the way it's divided now, but it's a divided country now and at that time the divide was over slavery, northern states had abolished slavery and Southern states had not and when there were divisive a sense it would spread instantly across the country but then be filtered bipartisan editors and northerners and Southerners would read totally different accounts of the same event and eventually totally different accounts of the 3 months.

You mentioned the divide in the country, how did they helped cause the Civil War.

Well, I think that this is what I mean by that the United States had been divided for a long time, but the political parties tried to appeal to both sections of the country North and South the electoral map made that necessary and that meant that no serious national political party could be anti-slavery because Southerners would not stand for it national parties tried to remain quiet if at all possible on slavery and if they were quiet, they were going to be overtly pro slavery in some way that was the way they thought they had to do in order to win but in the 1850's it became clear that there was a big demographic change in the country sort of like there's a big demographic change in the country now back then the demographic change was that the North had grown much more rapidly in population which meant it had much more political power and it became apparent that it might be possible to elect a president with northern votes alone Johnson Fremont was the first person to try that the new Republican Party attempted that strategy and he was their first nominee it didn't work but Southerners at that time said we are profoundly threatened by this development, we're being cut out of power and if a Republican is ever elected president we will leave the union they made that threat in 1856. They were able to back off because the Democrat James Buchanan won but Abraham Lincoln followed 3 months passed and did the same thing in 1860 and won.

Who are their opponents who's challenging this couple.

Well. They are ambitious people who eventually attached themselves to the Republican Party and that meant a lot of their opponents were people who were close to them Jesse Benton Fremont was from a Southern family. Her mother was from a very well off slave-owning family in Virginia and here's Jessie Benton Fremont now a prominent person in the new Republican Party which had been founded to oppose the expansion of slavery. She lost contact with a great number of her relations, the vast majority of them cut her off she wrote and in the end when Democrats who are a much more post Labor Party nominated a candidate to go against John see Fremont in 1856 they chose James Buchanan who was a long time Benton family friend, a longtime friend and neighbor of senator Benton someone Jesse had known all of her life when she was a teenager, she was a bridesmaid at a wedding and James Buchanan, the Senate are much older was one of the groomsman and they were paired off together so they were on intimate terms with the very people that they had an incredibly bitter campaign against.

2020. We're in an election year where do you draw parallels from their story and what we see taking place today.

One is the big demographic change in the country which at that time spurred a fear among Southerners, not just that they would lose an election but they would be shut out of power for ever and they said this is not acceptable and we will destroy the system if it ever happens we have somewhat similar fears today, I don't want to draw an exact parallel that we have a great demographic change in the country which can be destabilizing because the groups that are growing more rapidly people of color immigrants and so forth are voting more often for one party, the Democratic Party and so that demographic change has political implications Republicans who found this very threatening president Trump did and this was a rallying cry for him in 2016 an explicit cry he would tell his supporters this is your last chance your last chance to save the country as we know it before were overwhelmed by immigrants, this is the way that he would phrase it that fear leads to extreme politics. We now have Democrats who fear being shut out of power forever by a president that they feel breaks all the rules and and is an authoritarian and use appointing judges to life time tenure with conservative positions and so that suggests that 2020 is going to be a brutal year just because for both sides the stakes feel very very very high. 

Morning edition. Co-host Steve Inskeep author of the new book is in perfect Union of Jesse and John Fremont map the West invented celebrity and helped cause the Civil War, thank you so much when to do it.