A First Lady Who Might Have Been

Jessie Benton Fremont (National Park Service)

Several blogs past I wrote about some “also rans” for United States President, which could lead to speculation of “what if” the loser had won. I overlooked at least one name, that of John Fremont. He isn’t well-known or taught much about in history classes, although his experience and leadership matched many of the time.

His wife, Jessie, most certainly would have been an impressive first lady.

Jessie Benton Fremont was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, (not to be confused with an artist of the same name) who is taught about in history classes. He was a senator from Missouri before the Civil War, an advocate for western expansion and an opponent of slavery in the territories, and he let his daughter tag along with him when he had business at the Capitol and Executive Mansion.

At 17, while attending school in Washington, she eloped with Lieutenant John C. Fremont, ten years older. There was a period of estrangement between the two generations but eventually the Fremonts and the Bentons reconciled, and John became active in exploring the West with Kit Carson. Jessie stayed home and wrote for newspapers, also becoming well-known.

Jesie held a salon of writers, artists and spiritual leaders when they lived in San Francisco in the early 1860s. (National Park Service)

John became a senator from California, and then received the nomination for President in 1856 from the new Republican Party. Unmarried opponent Buchanan did not have an asset like Jessie. Crowds called her name and sang a song about her to the tune of Yankee Doodle. But “Mr. Fremont,” as she called him, lost, unable to sway the southern states. A newspaperman said they all regretted that she would not be “Mrs. President.”

Parents of five children, two of whom died in infancy, they moved to St. Louis during the Civil War where John was in command of the Western Department. But he ended a declaration of martial law by freeing slaves held by rebels in Missouri, which preceded the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was not happy. Even though Jessie traveled to Washington to plead the case with the President, he fired her husband. She also worked with the Soldier’s Relief Society and the Western Sanitation Commission which were accepted roles for a woman.

With husband, John C. Fremont. (www.calisphere.org)

The family came into hard times when John’s railroad speculations failed. After his death Jessie lived another twelve years, aided by a widow’s army pension and her narratives, which were as popular as ever.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One can see why readers anticipated her articles:

I look up at the little water-color which is my résumé of that time of severance from all I held indispensable to happiness—it was made for me on the spot, and gives my tent under the tall cotton-woods, already browned and growing bare with the coming winter winds.
Mr. Fremont was to make a winter crossing of the mountains, and I went with him in to his starting-point, the Delaware Indian reservation on the frontier of Missouri, to return when he left, and remain at home in Washington until my time came to start in March.
Of everything in the Centennial Exhibition, I think nothing interested me so much as the display made by Kansas. It seemed so few years since I had been there, when only a small settlement marked the steamboat landing where now Kansas City stands. Looking at its silk manufacturers, its produce of not only essentials, but luxuries, it was hard to realize the untracked prairie of my time, with only Indians and wolves for figures.

~ ~ ~ ~

My blog post receiving the most responses has been one about “little orange books” (subsequently with other covers) pubished by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. They were prevalent in elementary school libraries in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Many said these adapted biographies sparked a lifelong interest in history, as they did for me.

I remember reading Jessie Fremont’s story. One incident that stood out was when she befriended a girl at school whom everyone else shunned. That reflects the character of one who would have, by all accounts, been a knockout of a First Lady.

Sources:

http://www.theatlantic.com, http://www.tile.loc.gov, http://www.civilwar.vt.edu, http://www.nps.gov, http://www.americanhistoryblog.org, http://www.historynet.com

The Atlantic piece is an excerpt from a book about the Fremonts, Imperfect Union, by Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition.

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