IMPERFECT UNION by Steve Inskeep


How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War
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A biography of explorer John C. Frémont and his equally adventurous wife, Jessie.

John C. Frémont (1813-1890), born out of wedlock to an aristocratic American mother and a lower-echelon French immigrant named Frémon, was a self-invented and self-inventing American archetype, unafraid of the hard work of building reputation and fortune. As a young military officer, he mounted surveying expeditions of the American West that opened the door to westward expansion—and, writes NPR Morning Edition host Inskeep (Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab, 2015, etc.), may even have been “secretly told to conquer California,” picking a fight with Mexico in order to do so, even though Frémont had previously been opposed to a war that would enable “the extension of slavery.” John and Jessie, daughter of a prominent senator, were creatures of endless ambition, and between them, they gained and lost staggering amounts of money while engaging in quixotic gambles to attain the presidency. Though a unionist at heart, Frémont wasn’t shy about finding allies among the pro-slavery figures in office in the years leading up to Southern secession. He then rejoined the Army but was ineffective enough that Lincoln relieved him of any real responsibilities. Inskeep is a little more free-ranging in his view of Frémont than Tom Chaffin, whose 2002 study Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the Course of American Empire is the last major study of the man. Inskeep extends the story to suggest that Jessie and John were the first modern celebrities—though Daniel Boone probably deserves that honor—and that John was instrumental in laying out the foundations for the Civil War, which had been cooking before his birth. Still, the book is highly readable, and the author draws renewed attention to these undeniably important historical personages, who are too often forgotten among the likes of Kit Carson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Horace Greeley.

A lively introduction to a pair of flawed yet extraordinary figures in the nation’s movement westward.

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2435-3
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2019


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