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In “Imperfect Union” Steve Inskeep Examines Politically Powerful 19th Century Couple

man next to book cover
NPR's Steve Inskeep with his new book, "Imperfect Union." (Photos: Penguin Random House)

More than 12 million people wake up to the voice of NPR’s Steve Inskeep. The Morning Edition co-host is also an author and his latest book “Imperfect Union” explores the lives of Virginia-born Jessie Frémont and her husband John, “America’s first great political couple.” VPM’s Dan Rosenthal spoke with Steve Inskeep recently and asked him why the Frémonts aren’t more widely known.

(Transcript follows)

Steve Inskeep: One reason I think they've faded is that they're in this period of history that we don't focus on as much as what came right afterward. There are a lot of people who are obsessed and fascinated by the Civil War. This is the run up to the Civil War, which is overshadowed a little bit, but I think vitally important and much more similar to our time, really, if we're thinking about our time now, it's a great time to look at the 1840s and 50s when America was growing and changing and establishing the borders that we argue over now and arguing over immigration and arguing over race and who got to be American and what was our national identity. So it's a really, really revealing time, but it gets overshadowed by other things. So the free months have been overshadowed somewhat, but they were vital to that period, john Charles Freeman was a Western Explorer, who mapped the Oregon Trail and went to Mexican controlled California and eventually helped to take over Mexican controlled California and make it part of the United States. What he did was publicized the West and in that way, because it's about publicity, and it's about celebrity as well as real accomplishment. It's a very modern story.

Dan Rosenthal: One of the things john Fremont saw it wasn't to really abolish slavery, but to keep it from spreading to some of these newly settled territories in the West. And that involved immigrants to that sounds kind of familiar in today's politics in some respects.

Inskeep: No. Oh, yeah, absolutely. The nation was divided between free states and slave states, northern states and southern states. But that wasn't the only divide. And there was this debate about immigration that feels very modern. There were people who call themselves Native Americans, by which they didn't mean Indians. They meant native born white people whose parents or grandparents might have been immigrants, but they've been born here, they said, and they were opposed to foreigners coming in and fearful that foreigners would take over the country. And they were particularly concerned about one kind of immigrant Catholics, and there was fear that the pope or that some European powers would be using Catholic immigrants to take over the United States.
So there was a powerful movement against immigrants in that time, which john and Jesse Fremont had to deal with as political figures. And sometimes they got involved with those people. And sometimes they pushed against them a little bit. Other times they flirted with them and tried to get their support without fully fully engaging with them. It's rather a creepy part of the story. But it feels very modern. And it's useful to look at today, when we have a debate about immigration. These were really a celebrity couple.

Rosenthal: They were, I don't want to say joined at the hip, but a magazine of the day, called them one of the three most important figures since Jesus Christ.

Inskeep: Yeah, it's pretty amazing. The other two being Christopher Columbus, who connected Europe with the Americas, George Washington, the founder of the United States today as well. And then there was john Charles Fremont, who pushed this union all the way to the Pacific and did so just in time for the gold rush. He was seeing as the conqueror of California, and a central figure in all of that now, a lot of that was Hocus Pocus. A lot of that was publicity. A lot of that was a sham. When you get into the details of his story, you understand how erratic and confused and Miss directed a lot of his expeditions in the West were. But he did go out there, he did test himself against the elements. He did play a role in westward expansion, even though a lot of it was blown up or made up.

Rosenthal: And what John was off navigating and doing his discovering and mapping out the West. Jesse was back home taking care of the publicity for husband wasn't.

Inskeep: The publicity and also the politics Jesse Benton. Fremont was the daughter of a United States senator Thomas Hart Benton. He was a very powerful guy. He was among the founders of the Democratic Party, and he was also himself a former newspaper man who understood the value of publicity and believe that newspapers were like the forum in ancient Rome, it was where public issues could be debated. And so she had this background of growing up around senators growing up around presidents. And in fact, when she was very young, her father treated her almost like a boy would be treated of the era, he would go hunting with her because he didn't yet have a son. She would trail him to the United States Senate. Sometimes she would even trail him to the White House meeting presidents beginning with Andrew Jackson. And so when she became a woman, the senators and other leaders of the nation in Washington were men that she had known all her life, and she wasn't particularly afraid of them and was confident enough to have a conversation with a senator more than twice her age perhaps, or to tell a president that she thought he was wrong. She was a remarkable individual for her time, especially who obeyed traditional gender demands that she'd become a wife and become a mother and stay home while her husband was out exploring and yet also found these other roles for herself, particularly late when he was absent, and she would often serve as his political representative,

Rosenthal: When you get up at two or 245 in the morning and have to be at work or an hour or so later and have to travel or have promotions on your schedule.

Inskeep: Yeah.

Rosenthal: How do you find time to write a research a book like this?

Inskeep: Oh, my goodness, it is a challenge. You use stolen moments you use whatever time you can. And you try not to shortchange your work, or your writing or your family or anything else that might be important to you. And I'm sure there are many times that I have failed. But one good thing is that my ridiculous schedule is somewhat compatible with researching and writing a book. There are many days as you say that I'm in work about 4am. And there are some days that I'm still working at 4pm. There are days when the news just demands that of the interview that you have is going to happen in the afternoon. But there are days when I can leave at noon, and I've put in a full day, and the afternoon is mine as it should be. And I'm able to go down the street to the Library of Congress and research and when I'm down there researching events from the 1840s and 50s. I'm getting a different perspective on today, we still have politics that turn a lot on race, and on immigration and on national identity, and on where our borders are questions that were being argued about in the 1840s and 50s, in the same political system, and occasionally, even inside the same buildings. And so the historical research brings me back to my day job with fresh energy and interest and I would hope, understanding as to what's happening now, because I have a long view of it.

Rosenthal: Steve, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Inskeep: Thank you. I enjoyed it.



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