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The little-known story of the Republican Party's 1st presidential nominee


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Students of today's politics are often looking for echoes in history that inform our present.

A new book explores a chapter in American history with relevance to today that you may not know very much about. It is a story of how the illegitimate son of an immigrant rose to become the Republican Party's first presidential nominee in 1856, with a lot of help from his wife.

Lisa Desjardins has the latest edition of "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

Lisa Desjardins: In the mid-1840s, the United States was undergoing immense expansion, expanding its borders into the uncharted West in what was characterized as America's Manifest Destiny.

A new book explores that era through the story of John C. Fremont, a wilderness explorer turned politician, and his wife, Jessie. Together, they became the country's first celebrity power couple.

The book is "Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War."

And it's by NPR's Steve Inskeep.

That's quite a lot in a subtitle.


Steve Inskeep: It's a long title, but they had long lives and fascinating lives, and were at the center of American history for a couple of decades that I focus on in the 1840s and '50s, this period leading up to the Civil War.

Lisa Desjardins: But I'm curious, why do a book about both of them?

Steve Inskeep: Because they were a team.

John C. Fremont was a Western explorer. He didn't actually discover that much that was new. His accomplishment was making the West more famous and making it seem more alluring. And so he would go back and write these bestselling accounts of his adventures, but he would write them in collaboration with his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont.

She was the daughter of a senator who wanted to be involved in politics in a way that women weren't supposed to be involved in politics. And she operated through her husband and became a major political player. She is in some ways almost more interesting than he is.

Lisa Desjardins: I want to talk about the decisions that John was making on the trail.

He made several voyages out into the West, as you say. Not all of this was undiscovered territory, but harrowing journeys nonetheless. He risked many lives. Sometimes, he expended lives on his journey.

And I'd be interested if you could read one of the excerpts.

Steve Inskeep: Yes.

This is after one of his nearly catastrophic decisions. John C. Fremont was in what was called the Oregon Country. He decided the middle of winter would be a perfect time to find a new trail across the American west.

Lisa Desjardins: Of course.

Steve Inskeep: And his men got lost. They got stuck.

Fremont had risked his men's lives with little need, much as when he climbed the highest point in the Rocky Mountains, which is another thing that he had done that was a needless exploit for fame, really.

He'd done the same thing, except on a grander scale. Again, he got away with it, as persistence and endurance overcame his erratic decisions. The experience shifted the orientation of his life, because fate had momentarily brought him to California, a great stage, where he sensed there would be more acts for him to play.

He accidentally discovered California. And I don't mean discovered it like the first person to go there. I mean, he himself realized what it was, realized its potential, and resolved to return, and ended up being seen as the conqueror, the American conqueror, of Mexican California a couple of years later.

Lisa Desjardins: There's so much in this book, but I do want to come back to the center of Jessie...

Steve Inskeep: Yes.

Lisa Desjardins: ... his wife, Jessie Fremont.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how she managed to make him a national hero, and then catapult herself into a limelight like women had never been in before?

Steve Inskeep: Yes, it's an amazing story.

She was ambitious from a very young age. And she said: My father early gave me a place a boy would have had.

And she would follow him hunting and follow him to the Senate. There was a point when she grew up where this was no longer seen as appropriate. She eloped with this young penniless Army lieutenant, this adventurous lieutenant.

And she would receive his letters from the West, and she would put it in the newspaper and publicize what he was doing. After a while, she was writing letters herself that would get published in the newspaper.

And this immediately began to publicize her. People would notice and comment that a woman was commenting on politics.

Lisa Desjardins: You also wrote an op-ed in The New York Times.

Steve Inskeep: Yes.

Lisa Desjardins: And you're entitled it: "It's 1856 All Over Again."

I am intrigued. How? And what can we learn?

Steve Inskeep: One thing that is similar now and then is that the nation in the 1850s was undergoing a great demographic change.

The country was divided in a way that can feel familiar to us. The division then was between Northern states and Southern states, Northern states that had gradually abolished slavery and Southern states that had ever more fervently embraced slavery. That was the big divide.

And the demographic change was that the North was becoming much, much more populous, which, in a democratic country, means the North was becoming more and more powerful. The reason that should feel familiar today is, we are again going through a great demographic change that is seen as benefiting one party, the Democrats, a little bit more than the other party, the Republicans, and that can be destabilizing.

It creates fears on one side that they will be overwhelmed and not just lose an election, but lose forever. And this is something that President Trump told his supporters when running for office in 2016. He would tell them, this is your last chance, your last chance to save the country before we're overwhelmed by immigrants.

Now we have Democrats who fear being shut out of power forever because of the way the president governs the country in what they see as an authoritarian manner.

And that is something that leads to extreme politics, when people feel the stakes are so very, very high. They are high now, just as people felt they were very, very high back then.

Lisa Desjardins: A time of high stakes, a very interesting look at the past and, as you say, a little bit of present as well.

Steve Inskeep, thank you so much. Your book, "Imperfect Union."

We appreciate you talking with us.

Steve Inskeep: Thanks for reading.

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