Inskeep’s ‘Imperfect Union’ Examines Frémonts, Westward Expansion

Steve Inskeep at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

You hear Steve Inskeep’s voice weekday mornings on hundreds of public radio stations across the country, including WILL, as one of the hosts of NPR’s Morning Edition.

He’s also a bestselling author. His latest book out this month looks at the westward expansion of the United States in the mid-19th century, through the story of Jessie and John Frémont.

Brian Moline interviews Steve Inskeep about his book “Imperfect Union.”

Illinois Newsroom’s Brian Moline spoke with Inskeep about his book, “Imperfect Union,” and began by asking him what inspired him to write it.

Below is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Steve Inskeep: Several things. I’ve learned about the Fremonts as a kid because when you read a lot of history, 19th century history, you run across them and stories of the Old West, or stories of the civil war, stories of railroads because they were involved in all those things. But in more recent years, as a grown up, I have explored the westward expansion of the United States. I wrote a book called “Jacksonland” about Andrew Jackson and his battle with a Cherokee chief, his 20-year fight over taking over Cherokee land and removing Cherokees beyond the Mississippi, which was an early phase of westward expansion. And I wanted to explore the next phase, the phase of manifest destiny, of spreading across the continent as people said then, or some people anyway, I wanted to understand that better. And I began to realize that I could do that through the Fremonts, and that both john this Western Explorer, and Jesse, his wife had stories that felt really, truly modern, as they tried to navigate a rapidly changing country that was torn by questions of race and of immigration, in a time when the news media were exploding in a way that sped up the national debate and made it harder to follow, in a time when the nation was divided, and people were thinking about women’s rights, and there was just so much that felt like now, in the story of then.

Brian Moline: John and Jesse came from very different backgrounds. He was the illegitimate son of an immigrant. She was the daughter of a US Senator. Why were they such a good match?

Steve Inskeep: I think because they were both ambitious and because they each had something that the other lacked. Now, we could have a long discussion about how they loved each other, or how much they loved each other. It seems clear from the letters that she was always in love with him, always loved him, even though she found him frustrating. It’s a little harder to trace what he felt about her, although there’s a quote from a love letter early in their relationship. He seemed to have been a little more about himself and was a little bit lost in his own head. So we could talk about that, but in practical terms, as partners, they each had something the other lacked.

He was a penniless man who had worked his way into a lieutenants commission in the United States Army in the Army Corps of topographical engineers. So his job was going to be going out in the west on these mapping expeditions. But he didn’t have money. He didn’t have political connections. He didn’t have fame. He didn’t have any of the things that you would need to have in order to rise in the world in a way that you would want. She had those things. She was the daughter of a senator. She knew a lot of senators. She knew presidents. She was very confident in talking to presidents even though she was a young woman. She knew newspaper men, she had a lot of political sense. She could be his political advisor, so she had a lot of things he needed.

And the reverse was true as well, because Jesse Benton Fremont grew up a girl in this time of much stricter gender roles, in which she was expected to be a wife and expected to be a mother and definitely not expected to be involved in anything like westward expansion or politics, which she wanted to do. She could not do it directly, but she could do it through her husband, who became an aide and assistant in a way to her father, this powerful United States Senator Thomas Hart Benton who had visions of settling the West.

Brian Moline: And John became one of the most well known Americans of his time, in large part because of Jesse’s writings about him and his expeditions out west. How much of those…

The cover of “Imperfect Union” by Steve Inskeep. Penguin Random House

Steve Inskeep: …Forgive me I want to be I want to be precise about this, if I can. They were his writings. They were his stories, okay, but she was helping him. She was his secretary. She was taking dictation. She was sometimes his editor. I think there would be occasions where you’d think of her more as a writing partner. And occasionally, she’s a ghost writer, especially later in life and she’s even like writing letters on his behalf and so forth. I just want to be clear about that. That it’s, it’s his words, sort of, but it’s actually a little hard to tell whose words they are really.

Brian Moline: Sure. And what I’m curious about, Steve, is how how much of those chronicles were fact and how many of them were more fiction or stretched facts, if you will.

Steve Inskeep: I think that they were mostly but not entirely reliable. John C. Fremont was describing the landscape, he was mapping the landscape, documenting the landscape, and bringing back maps, and even bringing back plants, and soil samples and things like that. So his descriptions of the landscape, I think, are pretty good. And his stories of himself because he’s going out and writing these, he’s going on these adventures in the West, going over the Rocky Mountains or out the Oregon Trail or over the Sierras to California. He’s having these adventures and bringing everything back and writing about it in partnership with the help of his wife. And it’s always a kind of first person narrative. It’s exactly what he saw. So he’s always at the center of the story. And I think that is mostly honest, particularly because there are these rather humble moments where he tells stories about himself about when he got sick and started vomiting, or when he tried to jump across a stream in California and fell in instead. There’s enough of that humility that you mostly believe it.

But you can’t entirely believe it, because he would inflate things. In 1842, he climbed to the top of one of the Rocky Mountains and decided looking around that it must be the tallest point in all of North America. And he planted an American flag up there, it was like the moon landing, planting the flag on the moon landing in the following century, and he went down and wrote about it with a couple of qualifications, but basically got across the idea that he had climbed the highest point in the Rocky Mountains. And this became part of his legend, part of his fame, even though we know now that that particular mountain, which is called Fremont peak, is not even among the top 100 highest mountains in North America. So he was inflating his achievements, but that doesn’t mean they were totally unreliable accounts.

Brian Moline: There are a few Illinois connections in this book. Of course, Fremont started most of his expeditions from St. Louis, right on the Illinois border. I’m curious how did Fremont’s explorations influence Brigham Young who was living in western Illinois at that time?

Steve Inskeep: Yeah, absolutely. This is an amazing story. Fremont’s job in mapping the West and in writing about it was to entice people to settle the West so the United States could take it over. He wasn’t just getting publicity for its own sake, publicity was the point. It was the reason that his father in law senator Thomas Hart, Benton sent him out there, so that he could entice settlers to follow. And the people who did this include the Mormons. Mormon scholars have looked into this and they’ve documented it really well. There are accounts of John C. Fremont, having his reports published, and they’re published as excerpts and newspapers. They’re published in popular books, and in Nauvoo, Illinois, I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly, there was a newspaper in that Mormon community, and it excerpted Fremont’s reports. And then the full report arrived and Brigham Young himself attended a reading of parts of the report inside a temple there, as they were considering where to migrate to the west. And the place that they went, of course, was the Great Salt Lake area, which is an area that Fremont had traveled and mapped.

Brian Moline: Fremont was obviously very important in California’s development, becoming a state. He was one of the state’s first US senators. How did all of that come about? How did he become so instrumental in California’s development,

Steve Inskeep: He first got there kind of by accident. he was an erratic if ambitious leader of expeditions, he went out to what was then called the Oregon country on the Oregon Trail, and it was getting to be winter, he really should have spent the winter in Oregon, or if he was going to try to return these to go back on the marked Oregon Trail. Instead, he decided to try to find a new route back through the snow, got lost,ended up in what is now western Nevada. So he’s kind of going south rather than east, trying to find a way back east and not really finding it. And ultimately, he decided after much delay that the only thing they could do was to go west to get supplies in Mexican-controlled California, in the Central Valley. To get there, they had to go over the incredibly High Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle of winter and heavy snow. They barely made it, but then came to this kind of wonderland that fascinated Fremont and he said later that he made up his mind that he wanted to return there, that he wanted to make his home there.

A couple of years later, he returned with 60 American gunmen and began the process of taking over California, from Mexico on behalf of the United States. It’s a very strange and confused and sometimes comical, and sometimes atrocious and sad story, which I lay out in the book. But he became known at the end of it because he was a great self publicist, as the conqueror of California. He was lucky to have arrived there just as war was about to begin between the United States and Mexico. He couldn’t even know that the war had begun or not because communications were so bad. Fortunately for him, it was, and as the firing began in California, the war was already underway. That became the great prize of the war, which permanently changed the shape and the orientation and the direction and the diversity and the economy of America, the capture of California.

Brian Moline: And how did Fremont go from United States Senator of California, one of the first senators from that new state, how did he then become the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856?

Steve Inskeep: Because of his fame. The nation was divided in the 1850s between slave states and free states, southern states and northern states. Always before the 1850s, national political parties tried to appeal to both sections and had to. But the north was becoming more populous. There was a big demographic change going on, a little like the big demographic change that’s going on in America today, which many people find politically unsettling. That was a politically unsettling demographic change because the north was becoming more populated than the south, which meant it had more power. And it suddenly became apparent to northern politicians, that they might be able to have an anti-slavery party that could elect a president with northern votes alone, They might not need a single vote from the south, and they weren’t going to get one if they were an anti-slavery party, even though they were only opposed to the expansion of slavery, not actually calling for abolition.

So they had this brand new party, which was a somewhat unwieldy coalition of people who had various reasons for being against slavery somewhat or entirely, and they wanted some famous figure with a short political record, but a heroic reputation to serve as their nominee, and he seemed to be the obvious person and was nominated. Now, he lost, but it was a really important political campaign because he was charting the path that Abraham Lincoln would follow four years later.

Brian Moline: And I’m curious, just talking a little bit more about the election specifically, how did Fremont end up losing to James Buchanan, who many historians consider the worst president in US history?

Steve Inskeep: Yeah, it’s an amazing story. It was a brutal and divisive campaign. Buchanan was assured of the South. And the South was warning if they lost this election, if Democrats, if Buchanan lost this election to the Republicans, they were going to leave the union, they were going to secede, there would be a risk of Civil War, the country would come apart. So there was a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear. And Fremont seemed to be a very strong candidate, but his political opponents managed to take advantage of the tensions of the times to drag him down. This was a time of a major nativist movement of anti-immigrant sentiment. People who call themselves Native Americans by which they didn’t mean Indians they meant native born white people, oppose the arrival of immigrants and especially Catholic immigrants, Catholicism was considered this dangerous and alien religion, and immigrants were going to be used by the pope to take over the country, that sort of thing. And somewhat the way that people talk about Muslims today, people talked about Catholics then. And of course, we know Catholics are broadly accepted in the country now and it’s completely fine.

And so his political opponents took advantage of that anxiety. John Fremont was the illegitimate son of an immigrant. So the first thing his opponents did was reveal that. The second thing they did was pretend that he was not just the illegitimate son of an immigrant, but an immigrant, someone who had been born abroad and was ineligible to be president. They were birthers. And then they said, without proof that he was Catholic. It was a false charge, but it was extremely damaging.

Brian Moline: Final question, Steve. I know we’re almost out of time here. But why did Jesse and John Fremont largely fade into the background of US history?

Steve Inskeep: I think because they were involved in events that we’re not sure what we think about. Manifest Destiny, the westward expansion of the United States was brutal, even genocidal for many people. There were countless members of native nations who were either killed or displaced, lost their land, lost part or all of their land. Mexico was … a lot of Mexican land was taken away in an aggressive war by the United States. We’re not sure what we think about that, even though we appreciate the result, which is a much more global nation that embraces all of the world and people from all around the world. That is a part of Latin America because the US took over part of it. That is a Pacific power with important trading routes to China and India, which is something that John Fremont foresaw. They were involved in this vital making of America, but it is … it’s in many ways a troubling story when you look closely at it.

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Brian Moline

Brian Moline

Brian Moline is the Managing Editor of Illinois Newsroom and host of Morning Edition for Illinois Public Media/WILL. He's been with WILL since 2015, after a long stint at WDWS-AM in Champaign where he covered both news and sports for more than a decade. If you have story or interview ideas, you can reach Brian at bmoline@illinois.edu.