John Charles Frémont; 1813-1890. American abolitionist
. b., Savannah, Georgia
. d. Brooklyn
, New York
Born out of wedlock, Frémont was the son of a French immigrant who left his home country as a result of the Revolution, and a married American woman whom he seduced. The question of John's legitimacy (or lack thereof) was one that would later haunt his political career, providing ammunition for his opponents.
Although, it was hardly a formative event in young John's life, his parents took a trip to Nashville while he was all of nine months old, and chose to stay in the City Hotel. At the same time, Andrew Jackson was at the hotel, as well. He was to second a friend in a duel with a man by the name of Jesse Benton. Jesse Benton's second, his brother Thomas Hart Benton, was late. When he finally did arrive, rather than an clean duel, a disorganized fight broke out between the involved parties within the hotel. At least two shots were fired at Jackson by the Bentons - one hit him in the shoulder and nearly killed him. The second pierced a guest room's wall - the same room in which the infant John Fremont slept.
Having, by virtue of his background, few resources upon which to build a career, John Frémont joined the military. He managed to be put in charge of an expedition to survey the Appalachian mountains, and later in charge of one along the Missouri River.
While on this second expedition, Frémont decided it would be a good career move for him to lead an expedition to explore farther to the west, through and beyond the Rocky Mountains, to Oregon. One of the two Senators from Missouri was a proponent of westward expansion, and so Frémont paid visit to the home of Thomas Hart Benton, who had been elected to the Senate in 1820 (at the time, neither party realized their paths had previously crossed - they would only discover it later, to their mutual amazement). Frémont successfully procured his money - likely because Benton's sixteen-year-old daughter, Jessie Benton, became infatuated with him, and the senator was seeking to get the soldier well out of his daughter's sight.
If that was Benton's primary goal in getting Frémont his funding from Washington, he failed - Jessie eloped with John. Although there was a brief falling out, Benton eventually gave in and accepted Frémont as his son-in-law. Jessie would later help John write his reports and memoirs, manage his political career, and help run his business affairs.
Fremont also led an expedition to California. His report, penned by Jessie, proved resoundingly popular in Congress - that body comissioned ten thousand copies. Brands credits the report as a factor in James K. Polk's election to the presidency.
It was Frémont's second trip to California that was the more interesting one, though. In 1846, he led an armed expedition to the Mexican territory, fully intending to provoke a war. With Polk (who had already tried to purchase California from Mexico) in the White House, Frémont was probably correct that an attack on his men would result in the United States going to war with Mexico. He was ordered to leave by the commandant of the territory, José Castro, but did so slowly enough that Castro issued a call to arms against him and his men. Frémont's bluster in response was perhaps a little too much for his purposes, though, as Castro backed down, though remained firm that Frémont must leave the territory.
Along the way, Frémont heard rumors that the Mexican government was encouraging Indians to attack his party, and so he lost a preemptive first strike, killing well over 150 Native Americans in an unprovoked raid. As there was no response by the Mexican government, Frémont withdrew to Oregon. He only remained, though, until May of 1846, when a messenger from Polk reached him, and he moved south again, back into Mexican territory. He immediately resumed his campaign against the Indians, and raided several more villages.
And then came the Bear Flag Revolt. American settlers organized a rebellion against the Mexican government, and appealed to the U.S. for help. Frémont, without orders, obliged, and more or less took control of the rebellion. Furthermore, he ordered the killing of several Californians. And yet, there was still no war between the U.S. and Mexico - which potential left him potentially answerable to the Mexican government for murder.
Luckily for Fremont, Zachary Taylor succeeded in his mission in Texas to provoke a war. Frémont joined Commodore Robert Stockton's assault on Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, he received the surrender of California, and was appointed by Stockton as provisional governor. He got involved in a conflict between Stockton and General Stephen Kearny, the ranking army man in California, however, and chose poorly. Taking Stockton's side, he was court-martialed by Kearny for insubordination, and was sentenced to dismissal from service. His sentence was commuted by Polk, however, though Frémont, insulted, resigned his commission.
Out of the army life, Frémont had asked the American consul in Monterey to purchase a ranch for Frémont in the San Francisco hills. For whatever reason, the plot that was purchased was one in the Sierra foothills called the Mariposa, instead. As opposed to the ocean view and rolling hills near a growing city that Frémont was expecting, he received a much larger tract, but one full of hostile Indians and far from civilization. Though at first furious, after the California Gold Rush was already under way, and soon Frémont discovered his property contained large amounts of gold. Employing a number of Sonorans, he set up a mining operation, and very quickly became quite rich.
Money has a way of creating political influence, and, though his reputation as a conquering hero was somewhat sullied by his court-martial, Frémont found himself elected, as California's first Senator. He was accorded the honor of taking the state constitution east to Washington to be presented to the congress. In addition to his military history and his wealth, he probably had Jessie's influence to thank, as well. California elected to come into the Union as a free state, and Frémont, largely at the pressure of his wife, was anti-slavery, which played well at the polls.
In the end, Frémont served very little time in the Senate. He drew the short straw, meaning his term expired first among the new state's first two Senators, and it took the congress long enough to approve its admission that he was only seated a short time before his term expired, and he failed to get reelected - ironically, because the debate over the Compromise of 1850, which provided California's admission to the Union, had made the state rather unfriendly to anti-slavery candidates.
Frémont's political career was hardly over, however. In 1856, the nascent Republican party needed a presidential candidate. The Republicans were not under an illusions that they could win the presidency their first time out - they sought a candidate who was a big name who could drum up recognition, looking ahead to the 1860 election, and few career politicians would risk their careers on such a move. The fact that Frémont had recently organized one last expedition, ostensibly to survey a route for a transcontinental railroad, had put him back into the public eye, and in conflict with Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis - both qualities that appealed to Republican organizers. So it came as little surprise that he was offered the Republican nomination. In fact, he was also offered the Democratic nomination, but only on the condition that he accept the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. At Jessie's urging, he refused the Democrats and accepted the Republicans.
Of course, Frémont lost to James Buchanan. Buchanan carried all of the southern states but Maryland, which went to Millard Fillmore, while Frémont carried all but five northern states - which was enough to assure that Buchanan was elected. One has to wonder what would have happened had Frémont been elected. In Jessie's words, she wished her husband "had been the one to administer the bitter dose of subjection to the South, for he has the coolness and nerve to do it just as it needs to be done, without passion and without sympathy. As coldly as a surgeon over a hospital patient would he have cut off their right hand, Kansas, from the old unhealthy body."
Instead, four years later, Abraham Lincoln would be the one to administer that "bitter dose of subjection." In France at the time of secession, raising money to expand mining operations in the Mariposa, Frémont immediately began purchasing arms for the Union on his own tab.
Upon his return to the States, Frémont happily volunteered his services, and was given command of the Western Department as a general. In spite of his military experience, however, Frémont proved no more competent than any of Lincoln's other early political generals. Within two months, the Confederacy controlled half of Missouri.
As a desperate measure, Frémont attempted to turn things around with a sweeping edict. On August 30, 1861, he declared martial law in Missouri, ordered the death penalty for Confederate guerillas operating in Union territory, and confiscated all of the property (including slaves, whom he freed) of Confederate sympathisers. This went directly opposite Lincoln's goals, which included keeping Kentucky in the Union by promising that the war was not an abolitionist venture. Lincoln, trying to be diplomatic, ordered that guerillas only be shot with his approval, but asking that Frémont modify the declaration concerning property seizure to conform with federal law, which allowed for the seizure of only that property directly used against the Union.
Frémont declined. Furthermore, he sent Jessie to Washington to discuss this with Lincoln personally. Jessie appears to have offended Lincoln, and the day after her visit, Lincoln publicly ordered Fremont to modify his declaration. Not long thereafter, having produced no appreciable military victories, Frémont was removed from his command.
Perversely, his next assignment seems to have been a promotion. Frémont was put in charge of the new West Virginia command, much closer to Washington, with troops partly stripped out of George McClellan's Army of the Potomac. There, he planned an invasion of Tennessee - an invasion which was preemptively stopped by a well-placed attack by Stonewall Jackson. Frémont was then accorded the honor of being one of three union generals Jackson outmaneuvered in his Shenendoah Valley Campaign.
Angered at this failure, Lincoln placed Frémont and the other union generals Jackson had humiliated under the command of General John Pope. Frémont resigned in a huff, and Lincoln, who could not have sacked him due to pressure from radical Republicans, gladly accepted. Ironically, one of Pope's first orders in Virginia was to authorize his officers to shoot captured guerillas, sieze rebel property and evict civilians who would not take a loyalty oath.
Second Presidential Run and Beyond
In 1864, Lincoln's reelection was in doubt, and Frémont was one of the contenders for his job. Backed by radical Republicans and German-Americans, Frémont assembled a third party candidacy running on a strange combination of platform elements. The Radical Democratic Party, as it called itself, sought a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, the restoration of civil liberties (particularly habeus corpus and free speech rights Lincoln had ordered suspended), along with control of Reconstruction by Congress, and redistribution of southern land among Union soldiers and settlers.
Worried that they were pawns of a Democratic attempt to split the vote, however, the radical Republicans who made up the third party negotiated Frémont's withdrawal from the race in return for concessions from Lincoln in his cabinet makeup. Lincoln agreed, and the radicals returned to the Republican Party, with Frémont withdrawing from the election.
Frémont was technically a general throughout the war, though after his resignation from command of West Virginia he remained without assignment. After the war ended, he returned to California, only to discover that he was no longer the one receiving profits from the Mariposa. He tried his hand at the railroad business, but squandered the rest of his fortune trying to compete with Leland Stanford's Union-Pacific Railroad. By 1870, his venture was sunk, and he and Jessie, along with their daughter Lily, were left poor. They managed to escape poverty by the twin virtues of Jessie's writing career and the charity of their friends.
John would die during a visit to New York in 1890. According to his wife, John's last conversation was with his doctor. "If I keep this free of pain, I can go home next week," he said.
The doctor asked in response, "Home? What do you call home?"
Frémont responded, "Why, California, of course."
"And," according to Jessie, "with the name which had been so long his guiding star, he spoke no more."
BRANDS, H.W., (2002) The Age of Gold. New York: Doubleday
MCPHERSON, J., (1988) Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Ballantine Books