'Imperfect Union': What An 1850s Political Power Couple Can Teach Us About Voting In 2020 NPR's Steve Inskeep, discussing his book Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity and Helped Cause the Civil War, touches on parallels to U.S. politics in 2020.

In An Election Year, Reflecting On A Political Power Couple From The 1800s

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/795585454/795742763" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This presidential election year, there are plenty of big questions on the table, like - what kind of country do we want? And, also, it must be said. There are plenty of petty, ill-informed and divisive rifts as well. Might seem unprecedented, but - as my NPR colleague, Steve Inskeep, pointed out in a recent op-ed in The New York Times - we've been here before. The United States, in the mid-1840s, was a country in the middle of a major transformation, pushing its boundaries to extend from coast to coast to claim what many back then saw as America's manifest destiny. Steve's latest book explores that time through the story of a political power couple who personified the ambitions of the era. The book is called "Imperfect Union: How Jessie And John Fremont Mapped The West, Invented Celebrity And Helped Cause The Civil War."

Steve Inskeep, who, in his spare time as co-host of Morning Edition, was nice enough to walk down the hall to talk to us about it, starting with how Jessie and John Fremont's celebrity was based on John's expeditions west but, also, on how the couple publicized them.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: This guy was supposed to come back with good maps and come back with dramatic tales of his adventures and promote the West to entice Americans to settle it. It was a PR game as much as it was exploration. Although, he was out there, risking his life and nearly dying more than once in order to get across that landscape.

MARTIN: And what role did his wife play in all this? I want to mention - she was the daughter of a prominent senator from Missouri, Thomas Benton. He was a big proponent of Western expansion. You point out, you know, they eloped when she was just 17.


MARTIN: And he was, you know, 26 and - which sounds crazy, you know? But people did stuff like that back then, you know?

INSKEEP: It's how it was, yeah.

MARTIN: What role did she play in this? Because, I mean, she sounds like she was quite a formidable character.

INSKEEP: She was a really formidable character in a time when, of course, women's roles were far more constrained by society. But she had grown up wanting to do things that boys did. Her father initially encouraged this. There was a point at which he said, OK, now, actually, you have to become a woman. When she was a teenager, he became less and less comfortable with her explorations. But she managed to marry a man who became, in effect, his assistant and his aide in promoting westward expansion.

And as John Charles Fremont was writing these popular accounts of his adventures, she would be his secretary or his editor, occasionally, his ghost writer, his political representative when he was away from Washington, his publicist who would take his letters and take them to newspaper editors, and someone who helped in really profound ways over the years to shape his image, both by bringing out his positive qualities and hiding things that were considered more embarrassing.

MARTIN: So you make a convincing case that together, I mean, we can just hear from your account here that Jessie and John Fremont were America's first celebrity power couple, popularized the idea of westward expansion.


MARTIN: You certainly describe how John's work and her publicizing that work led to westward expansion. But why do you say that they helped cause the Civil War?

INSKEEP: Because they were, after becoming very famous, involved in the presidential campaign of 1856. It was the first presidential campaign by the Republican Party. John C. Fremont was the first-ever Republican nominee. And this was the first major political party in America that meaningfully opposed slavery. Up until that moment, major political parties had always needed - because of the electoral math - to appeal for Southern votes, which meant appealing for votes in slave states. And so they had to accommodate slavery, couldn't go against it very much at all.

The Republican Party came about as - the North's population grew so much that they realized - Northerners realized they might win the presidency with Northern votes alone. They were trying this audacious way to take advantage of the demographic change in America to make what was seen then as a very progressive change, to meaningfully opposed the extension of slavery. This was something the South found very threatening. They threatened to blow up the Union in effect if it - if Republicans ever won power. And the Fremonts were there at the beginning of that.

MARTIN: So what lesson are we drawing from all this? I mean, you make the compelling case that there are a lot of things that we see in our public life today...


MARTIN: ...That are very reminiscent of this. I mean, you talk about, for example, I mean, the way that Fremont's opponents try to damage his reputation through a combination of things that were true...


MARTIN: ...Which is that he was the son of an immigrant. But they were - like, he was the target of the original birtherism.

INSKEEP: Absolutely.

MARTIN: They tried to say that he was an immigrant - which he's not, which he isn't, the accent on his name notwithstanding - to try to say he was ineligible for the presidency. Where have we heard that before?


MARTIN: That the nativist movement at that time was so strong, that...

INSKEEP: There was anti-immigrant sentiment, absolutely, huge.

MARTIN: Not just anti-immigrant sentiment. But there were, like, these provocative marches through immigrant neighborhoods that were - you know? I mean, where have we seen that, currently?

INSKEEP: There was a movement against religion that was considered dangerous and alien.


INSKEEP: In that time, it was Catholicism that was being targeted that way.

MARTIN: So how do you - as both a journalist and as a person with a deep interest in history, how do you read this story...

INSKEEP: In 2020.

MARTIN: ...In 2020.

INSKEEP: I don't want to suggest that history is repeating itself, perfectly. We would never want to do that. But I think we can learn from it. And the 1840s and '50s were like today in that they were times of great demographic change. And those demographic changes meant changes in political power.

We're going through a period of demographic change today. Not exactly the same, but we have groups of people - people of color, immigrants, we could go through the list - who are associated with one political party much more so than the other. And because they're growing in numbers more rapidly, you have Democrats who are confident that demographics will bring them to victory and progressives who are confident that they don't need to compromise the same way with conservatives.

And you have conservatives who are concerned about this demographic change and see it as an unfair way to permanently shut them out of power. That is - a similarity between then and now is that you have people who don't merely fear losing an election but fear permanently being in the minority, permanently being defeated. And that is something that Americans of whatever political stripe have difficulty tolerating.

Donald Trump's rallying cry in 2016 was this - he was saying to his supporters - is your last chance. This may be your last chance to save the country, meaning your last chance for our side to win and to impose rules that will allow us to prevail.

In 2020, we also have Democrats who are saying we are at risk of being permanently defeated as the president appoints judges of different points of view who will have lifetime appointments, and the rules are changed for elections. That is the reason I think that there is such tremendous anxiety, which is fanned by politicians, including the president, and which is real in some sense. But we also should keep a little perspective and be mindful that whatever happens in 2020 - and almost half of us are going to hate it, whatever it is - there will be another election we hope.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Steve Inskeep. He is the co-host of Morning Edition. He's the author most recently of "Imperfect Union: How Jessie And John Fremont Mapped The West, Invented Celebrity And Helped Cause The Civil War." Steve Inskeep, thank you.

INSKEEP: I'm glad to do this.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.