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.

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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.

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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.

Nabby

Abigail Adams in the early years of her marriage.

Manager.  Correspondent.  Editorial Writer.  Wife.  Mother.  Grandmother.  Advocate for women’s rights.  While any of these words might describe a woman of today, they also hallmarked the life of our second first lady at the end of the Eighteenth Century.

I recently looked into some biographies to portray Abigail Adams for a couple of fifth grade classrooms.  The daughter of a minister and his wife, “Nabby” Smith was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744.  Typical of the time, she and her sisters weren’t sent to school as their brother was, but absorbed reading lessons at home.  Nabby’s father’s library, most of all writings of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, was a source of many hours of happiness for her.  Family discussion of current events formed the basis for the opinions she developed early on; the French and Indian War began when she was ten.

By seventeen when she became acquainted with John Adams, Abigail was a well-rounded young woman.  She married the country lawyer, ten years her senior, at nineteen.  They set up housekeeping in Braintree (now Quincy) on the Adams farm, in a house next to his mother’s.

While John was away in Boston or at circuit court, Abigail remained at home to tend things.  She was by all accounts a very hard worker.  The couple had six children, four of whom grew to adulthood.  Their first was a girl also named Nabby, their second, a boy named John Quincy.  By 1770 the young family was in the midst of an embroiled colonial relationship with England.  John was called upon to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.

At the time of Lexington and Concord in 1775, he wrote to her to “flee to the woods” in case of danger.  During the Battle of Bunker Hill, she took John Quincy by the hand and climbed Penn’s Hill in the distance to watch.  A good friend, whose children were in her care, was killed in the melee.

John represented Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress, and was on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence at the Second.  “Remember the ladies,” she told him, “and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of husbands….we will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice.”

She was adamant that girls be given the same opportunities for education as boys.  “How can the republic produce heroes, statesmen and philosophers if it does not produce learned women?”

All the while she was writing, she was managing the farm.  She bought and sold property, got rid of an overseer who wouldn’t do his work, and shared in the physical labor of preserving food and making clothing.  From their sheep she carded wool, spun the yarn, wove the yarn into cloth, then cut and sewed it.

In 1783 she was able to visit John in France for several months, while he worked as ambassador and John Quincy served as his secretary.  The portrait above was painted there.

John and Abigail, who considered themselves best friends, exchanged over 1,000 letters during their marriage, but this is one she wrote to her sister.

John Adams served as Vice President under George Washington for eight years, during which time she helped Martha host public receptions, in New York and then Philadelphia.  John was elected President in 1796; for the last four months of his term in November of 1800 the first couple moved into an unfinished President’s House in the swampy new town of Washington, D.C.  Abigail famously hung her laundry in the East Room.  Less well-known is the fact that at least one politician called her “Mrs. President.”

It had not been a contented time for the couple, with Federalists and Anti-Federalists at each other’s throats.  John’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson was severely strained (she was able to help repair it at the end of her life).  Abigail, never one to curb her outlook, had to be careful.  “My pen must grow cautious,” she wrote.  “There is envy and hatred and uncharitableness in all three branches of government.”

Finally, they were together again at home in Massachusetts.  The new state was enormous, including what we know as Maine until 1820.  Just as had happened in the original colony of Carolina earlier, the center of government was far from those living in the north.

Abigail and John enjoyed following the success of John Quincy’s political career in their retirement, and also growing number of grandchildren, some of whom stayed with them.  She would live to be 73.  Her husband, though, reached 90, passing away on July 4, 1826, as did Thomas Jefferson.  It was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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As I straightened the bow on my white lace cap, my audience had questions.  “What games did your children play?”

“Some the same as you, tag and hide-and-seek.  They had marbles made of clay.  And they played an outdoor game called quoits, a lot like horseshoes.”

“Did you own slaves?” they wanted to know.

“No, our family was firm against it.  In fact, the issue of slavery almost stopped our country from starting in the first place.”

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“I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in those who have deprived their fellow creatures of theirs,” Abigail Adams stated.  But in order to unite, the northern states had to compromise with those in the south.  It would cause a civil war on American soil not quite a hundred years after she and so many others worked to form the new nation.

 

Images from http://www.firstladies.org