Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Fremont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics, and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America

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John Charles Frémont was the illegitimate child of a Virginia aristocrat and a working-class French immigrant; Jessie Benton was the daughter of the most powerful pre-Civil War U.S. senator, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and, her gender notwithstanding, had been groomed as much as any young man to be president. Senator Benton unwittingly brought the two together, never imagining that his daughter would fall in love with Frémont. Despite their disparate backgrounds, however, John and Jessie’s marriage was one of the most storied events of the nineteenth century.

And indeed, Jessie and John made a formidable couple. Both together and apart they contributed significantly to shaping the United States. He was a key figure in western expansion and the first presidential candidate for the Republican Party. She was a savvy political operator who played confidante and adviser to the highest political powers in the country. Despite their great efforts on behalf of their country, however, their reputations did not survive a Washington smear campaign led by none other than Jessie’s father.

Written with an investigative journalist’s eye for detail and a novelist’s flair, this biography of explorer, politician, and gold-mine owner John C. Frémont and his intellectual wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, also casts light on the tumultuous period that forms the backdrop for their lives, from the abolition of slavery to the building of the railroad.

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Editorial Reviews

Mimi Swartz
Passion and Principle really belongs to Jessie — she was the better writer and had profoundly superior social skills — and Denton handily makes the case for elevating the couple’s stature in the history books. But the Frémonts’ self-righteousness, if played down by the author, serves as a cautionary and often humorous subtext. Like so many progressives, the Frémonts were mostly right, but couldn’t help reminding everyone else of that fact, and, ultimately, it did them in. Even back then, nobody liked an “I told you so.”
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Denton (American Massacre) produces an intriguing take on the life and times of John C. Fremont (1813-1890), explorer of the West, traveling partner of Kit Carson, California senator, unyielding abolitionist and the Republican Party's first presidential candidate (he lost the 1856 election to James Buchanan). This is not a conventional political biography but a portrait of the five-decade-long marriage between Fremont and Jessie, a daughter of Missouri Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton, set against the tumultuous background of 19th-century America. It is certainly the first narrative in which Jessie Fremont is accorded equal weight, and is by far the most sympathetic-not just to her, but also to him. John, all too often depicted as a semicompetent and fraudulent megalomaniac, emerges as an immensely talented explorer, overtrusting soul and introverted scientist. Jessie's historical caricature as a hysterical shrew and control freak is sensitively tempered by Denton into a complex amalgam of indomitability and idealism constrained by her times into playing second fiddle. Jessie's accomplishments, writes Denton, "were attained not through John as her surrogate, but with John as her partner." As Denton shows, Bill and Hillary are not the first American power couple. 16 pages of b&w illus. (May) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Denton (Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman's Passage in the American West) tackles the story of 19th-century explorer, Civil War Union general, and (in 1856) inaugural Republican presidential nominee John Frémont and his politically influential wife, Jessie Benton Frémont. She relies heavily on primary sources such as letters, diary entries, and official government documents to untangle the convoluted and widely misperceived political careers and personal lives of her subjects. Denton's research strives to explain Jessie's role in her husband's controversial attempts to abolish slavery, and she convincingly refutes popular historiography's perception of John as fortuitously marrying into a politically powerful family and coasting on his wife's talent. The Frémonts' story stretches from the advent of Manifest Destiny through the Civil War, and Denton tells the tale well, in dense but always readable detail. This original and engaging work is sure to be a boon to historians studying Old West exploration or political entanglements and military actions leading up to the Civil War. Highly recommended for all academic and large public libraries.
—Douglas King

Kirkus Reviews
Western historian Denton (Faith and Betrayal, 2005, etc.) offers a revisionist treatment of the fearless Pathfinder and his talented, ambitious wife. History has unfairly maligned John and Jessie Fremont, the author argues. Both were attractive, charismatic figures: bright, highly educated and articulate. The "passion" of the title alludes to the Fremonts' very affectionate 50-year marriage and to their commitment to various social and political causes, including abolition. The "principle" lies in their refusal to compromise those core convictions, even when wealth and political power hung in the balance. Denton begins with their initial meeting, described in swooning phrases that would make an apt additional verse to "Some Enchanted Evening." Indeed, as she retreats in time to summarize her principals' pre-swoon biographies, the author's florid prose seems overly colored by the 19th-century sources she consulted (from which she might profitably have ascertained the correct usage of words like "fulsome" and "sojourn"). Denton also repeatedly and unnecessarily quotes from other biographers and historians, sometimes on simple matters of fact. The facts themselves are intriguing. John, the offspring of a dashing French refugee and a Virginia woman who may not have been divorced from her first husband, was 11 years older than Jessie when their son was born in 1813. Jessie was the daughter of aristocratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who disapproved so strongly of her suitor that they wed secretly. Together or apart-they were separated for long periods-the Fremonts made a formidable team. They were ambitious, cultivating relationships with some of the most celebrated political and culturalfigures of the century. (They once summered with Longfellow and the Whittiers.) He trusted her implicitly and sent her on missions of enormous significance. They made and lost fortunes in gold-mining and railroad speculation-and very nearly won the White House in 1856, when John was the newly formed Republican Party's first presidential candidate. The Fremonts' story remains compelling, even when manhandled by a maladroit biographer.
Los Angeles Times
“We like to think of so-called power couples as a contemporary phenomenon, but they’ve turned up with fair regularity throughout history. . . . Journalist and historical writer Sally Denton’s fascinating double biography of John C. Frémont and his wife Jessie Benton makes a convincing case that they ought to be added to the list.”—Los Angeles Times
New York Times Book Review
“Anyone who has ever imagined living life totally on his or her own terms would do well to study the lessons of Passion and Principle, Sally Denton’s lively revisionist accounting of John and Jessie Frémont. . . . Denton, whose books include American Massacre and Faith and Betrayal, is a wonderful writer, and was fortunate to have had in the Frémonts two willing helpmates. . . . Denton handily makes the case for elevating the couple’s stature in the history books.”—New York Times Book Review
American Heritage
"A fascinating story of love and struggle . . . sheds light on a character only dimly known; few remember Jessie Frémont at all, let alone in her roles in the exploration of the West and the battle against slavery. Who knew that expansion and emancipation, the two great projects of nineteenth-century America, were so helped along by someone Lincoln once called 'quite a female politician'?"
American Heritage Publishing Staff
“A fascinating story of love and struggle . . . sheds light on a character only dimly known; few remember Jessie Frémont at all, let alone in her roles in the exploration of the West and the battle against slavery. Who knew that expansion and emancipation, the two great projects of nineteenth-century America, were so helped along by someone Lincoln once called ‘quite a female politician’?”—American Heritage
Those who can't write, review - James Durney
"While John has many bios, this book is unique in being about both. John without Jessie is only half the story; this book completes the story in a readable, informative and enjoyable book."—James Durney, Those who can’t write, review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596910195
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.64 (h) x 1.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Sally Denton is the author of Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman’s Passage in the American West and American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and her award-winning investigative reporting has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and American Heritage.

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Read an Excerpt

Passion and Principle

John and Jessie Fremont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America
By Sally Denton


Copyright © 2007 Sally Denton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-019-7

Chapter One

John 1813-1840

Before him lies a boundless continent, and he urges forward as if time pressed and he was afraid of finding no room for his exertions. -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Born January 21, 1813, in Savannah,Georgia, into a scandalous love triangle, John Charles Frémont seemed destined to wander. "About [his] cradle hung as dark clouds as have surrounded the infancy of any notable American," wrote Allan Nevins, one of Frémont's first biographers-"the clouds of illegitimacy, poverty, and total uncertainty of the future." Quiet but proud offspring of Virginia gentility and either French royalty or Canadian merchants-depending on which conflicting histories one credits-John was indisputably the love child of an unlikely match.

His father, Jean Charles Fremon-the t and accent aigu added to his son's name many years later-had escaped Lyons during the French Revolution on a passenger ship bound for Saint Domingue, according to most biographical versions. After a British man-of-war captured the ship, Fremon was among the many taken prisoner and held on one of the English islands for an unknown number of years. Other historical and genealogical accounts identify Frémont's father as a French-Canadian named Louis-René Frémont-with both the t and the accent-born in Québec to Jean Louis and Catherine Reine. This Louis-René filed in 1800 for a seat in Québec's parliament, the Chambre de l'Assemblée, but withdrew his candidacy before the election. He then traveled from Canada to Saint Domingue-now Haiti-where he intended to join a relative who lived in the colony, which Napoleon had recently restored to French rule, and where slaves and free blacks had overthrown the French elite.

By all accounts, Jean Charles Fremon was imprisoned for several years, making willow baskets and painting frescoes on the ceilings of the Spanish-style mansions of the wealthy landholders, for which he was paid a small prisoner's stipend. He somehow made good his escape, apparently intending to return to either Canada or France, landing first in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1808, with his paltry savings, and where he apparently joined his brother Francis Fremon. Now calling himself Charles Fremon, the slender, dark-skinned immigrant began teaching his native language to Norfolk's privileged society. The Southern states were brimming with French refugees, who were held in high regard by the local Francophiles.

Fluent in English and exceedingly courteous, the charismatic nomad was quickly accepted by the old colonial families of the Tidewater region. His charisma drew people to him-a shock of black hair, impeccable manners, dancing dark eyes, and a pleasant personality. Before long he abandoned his notion of returning to his homeland, finding Virginia pleasant and profitable, and accepted a teaching job at William and Mary College, midway between Norfolk and Richmond. But when a position became available at the desirable Richmond academy run by the scholar Louis H. Girardin, Fremon eagerly moved to the thriving Virginia capital. A longtime friend of Thomas Jefferson, Girardin and his partner, David Doyle, had educated the progeny of Virginia's most prominent families. Fremon's acceptance into this highbrow and reputable establishment gave him entrée into the city's upper-class society.

Both Girardin and Doyle found him a welcome addition to the faculty, but when rumors began circulating that he was cohabiting with an unmarried Richmond woman, they confronted him. Rather than deny the reports of his libertine behavior, Fremon took offense at their interference in his private life, boldly declaring, "I will do as I please." Girardin dismissed the charming rake, charging he was not "a fit person to give instructions to young ladies." The incident had little effect on the teacher's standing in the community-he remained a favorite guest at the best homes-and he was soon back at Girardin's academy. "Richmond people do not care much about these things," Doyle's successor, John Wood, said upon rehiring Fremon.

Fremon ended his affair with the unknown woman and rented a cottage at the Haymarket Gardens, a verdant recreational park that Major John Pryor owned on the banks of the James River. A prominent Revolutionary War veteran who had fought under George Washington, Pryor was a wealthy Richmond businessman, proprietor of the largest livery stable in the capital, and secretary of the influential Jockey Club. The repulsively vulgar seventy-five-year-old was notorious not only for his shady horse racing ventures but also for his arresting thirty-year-old wife. The improbable match was a classically tawdry tale of decayed southern gentry and social expediency. Charles Fremon's emergence as Anne Pryor's French teacher would only add to the drama.

Anne Beverley Whiting was the youngest of fifteen children. Her father, Colonel Thomas Whiting, a Virginia landholder who had been a leading member of the House of Burgesses, had been the king's attorney before the American Revolution. President of the Naval Board during the Revolution-a most dignified position-Whiting's lineage traced a connection through marriage to George Washington, whom he had held as an infant during the future president's baptism. His Elmington estate encompassed all the acreage in Gloucester County between the North and Ware rivers. It was to his third wife, Elizabeth Sewall, that Anne was born.

Whiting died when Anne was six months old. His estate was divided equally among his surviving children, each of whom also received "thirty negroes," according to his will. As a baby, Anne was powerless to protect her inheritance, and when her mother married Samuel Carey, Anne's fortune dwindled as Carey directed the family's finances. The five children from Whiting's first marriage engaged in protracted, and apparently unsuccessful, litigation against Carey in an effort to acquire control of the bequests. With the death of her mother, the orphaned Anne found the Carey home intolerable-"disagreeable from the vexations of lawsuits"-and moved in with her married sister Catherine.

By age seventeen, Anne had blossomed into a graceful belle, and Catherine avidly sought a suitable mate for the dispossessed girl. She settled on John Pryor as Anne's deliverer from what one observer called "the greatest of all calamities, poverty." Anne was repulsed by the gouty and crude man forty-five years her senior, and rebuffed his pursuit despite her sister's ardent efforts. Finally she relented, apparently entering the marriage in 1796 with stoic resignation. Her dowry included "the negroes contained in lot No. 3"-three men, two women, and two children who apparently constituted what was left of her inheritance.

From the start the arrangement was problematic, he a cantankerous and impotent elderly man-"a disabled, stiff-limbed old soldier," the Richmond Dispatch later portrayed him-she increasingly desperate in the loveless, childless union. Her bride's nest was a modest, rambling structure on the grounds of Haymarket Gardens, consisting of two long wings and attached servants' quarters. "I was married too young to be sensible of the importance of the state in which I was about to enter," Anne wrote afterward, "and found when too late that I had acted with too much precipitancy, and could never feel that love for him to whom I was united, without which the marriage state of all others is the most wretched."

For twelve years she suffered in silence, eventually refusing to join Pryor in the fast-paced horsy set that was her husband's milieu, and slipping steadily into what was then called melancholia-the nineteenth-century euphemism for depression. Not until the stunningly handsome and wildly romantic Jean Fremon came to Richmond in 1810-taking up lodging on Pryor's estate-did Anne feel the stirrings of love for the first time in her life. Hired by Pryor to teach French to Anne, Fremon lured her smoothly into an affair. Though as discreet as possible, their mutual arousal was impossible to hide, especially for the Byronic Fremon. They planned to wait for Pryor to die-then Anne would inherit his abundant holdings and the two would be free to marry-but their designs were preempted when her husband learned of the illicit liaison.

The hot-tempered Pryor confronted the two lovers on July 9, 1811, threatening first to kill Anne. "You may spare yourself the crime," she railed at him. "I shall leave your house tomorrow morning forever!" The two men exchanged threats, each vowing to kill the other, but by dawn the next day Anne and Charles had left Richmond. "I did not run away, but was turned out of doors at night and in an approaching storm," Anne later claimed. Anne "totally alienated her affections from me by the vile and invidious machinations of an execrable monster of baseness and depravity, with whom I have recently discovered she has for some time past indulged in criminal intercourse," Pryor declared in his divorce petition, published in the Virginia Patriot.

On the eve of the War of 1812, Richmond was a flourishing community of some seven thousand, what historian Jay Winik described as "a thriving hybrid of old-fashioned Southern gentility and newfangled urban enterprise." Such a city was primed to find interest in the couple's scurrilous conduct, and the scandal was rich fodder for gossip among Richmond's patrician society. But Anne and Charles embarked on their own adventure, apparently following Fremon's long-standing, and mysterious, interest in the character and condition of North American Indians, touring the Indian regions of the southeastern United States. Combining their assets, they loaded their belongings onto a stagecoach, and along with two of her slaves set out for Williamsburg and then Norfolk, where Anne would collect additional possessions in those towns-property Anne had apparently been granted the previous year as a result of litigation against her father's estate.

Family lore would have it that they had enough money between them to "gratify Fremon's wish to tour the South and learn something of the habits of the Indians, in which he felt a keen interest." His unexplained anthropological curiosity about American Indians is said to have fostered an early attachment to the subject in his son, John, the legend of his ethnographic exploration evolving with John's future fame. Though the story was no doubt embellished by a succeeding generation, the evidence suggests that the couple did indeed move from town to town, often camping for extended periods with Native Americans.

By October, they were settled in a tiny brick house in Savannah, Georgia, on the property of one of that town's more prominent citizens. Located in what was then known as the Yamacraw section of the small city, they set up housekeeping while awaiting her final divorce so they could marry. Their funds nearly exhausted, Charles began advertising his services as a teacher of French and dancing instructor, and Anne sought boarders to supplement their meager holdings. "We are poor," she wrote a friend at this time, "but we can be content with little, for I have found that happiness consists not in riches."

The Virginia House of Delegates declined Pryor's divorce petition on December 11, 1811, and when Anne's first child, John Charles, was born January 21, 1813, the birth was possibly out of wedlock. Much would be made of John's illegitimacy later in his life-by both political rivals and psychological biographers-his future marred by "the dual heritage of scandal and the blunt label of bastard." Observers would attribute John's driving ambition, remote personality, and defiance of authority to this hapless beginning. Still, his early family life was affectionate and stimulating-his nanny the bighearted "Black Hannah," inherited by his mother, had accompanied the family from Richmond. Overall it was a time that he remembered with fondness despite its many hardships. "A child of love, a child who knew the meaning of discrimination before he knew the word," wrote his biographer Ferol Egan, "Frémont came from a background with all the trappings of a Charles Dickens novel."

Shortly after John's birth, the couple took to wandering again. John later recalled his first memories as those of Indian villages, where his parents and their servants would tether their horses, aromatic smoke permeating their campsite. In an ironic twist of fate the toddler narrowly escaped a bullet fired by his future father-in-law. In September 1813, the Fremons were temporarily lodged at a Nashville hotel-alternatively identified in historical accounts as the City Hotel and Clayton Talbot's Tavern-where Thomas Hart Benton and his brother, Jesse, also were guests. Then an up-and-coming lawyer and Tennessee politician, Benton had come to Nashville to confront General Andrew Jackson, who had acted as a second for Jesse Benton's rival in a recent duel. The town had poured out to greet Jackson, celebrated for his role as a fighter of Indians and for his heroic march from Natchez to Nashville during the War of 1812. Undaunted by Jackson's fame and support, Benton was determined to avenge what he considered Jackson's brutal treatment of Jesse. Such frontier violence was commonplace, the days of Daniel Boone still fresh in the young nation's mind.

"The quarrel was an opera bouffe episode," according to historian Nevins, Jackson widely proclaiming his intention to horsewhip Benton. But after a volley of gunshots and a series of physical blows, it was Jackson who was carried away bleeding-the blood from the injury soaking two mattresses and leaving Jackson perilously close to death. The fracas left a minié ball from Jesse's pistol lodged in the future president's shoulder, and another stray bullet meant for Jackson penetrated the thin wall of the hotel room where John was sleeping with his traveling parents. Out of the duel between Jackson and Benton grew a friendship and political alliance that would benefit them both-and, fatefully, John.

The family would stay at least a year in Nashville, where Anne gave birth to their daughter, Elizabeth. They then moved back to Norfolk, hoping to settle permanently. Now that Pryor had died, Charles and Anne were free to marry-though there is no evidence that they ever did so-and the scandal that had surrounded their elopement had faded, though it was never wholly forgotten. Anne had many family members in Norfolk. Charles's brother, Francis, also still lived there, and the couple's third child, a boy named Horation "Frank" Francis,would be born there in 1817.

It had been seven of the happiest, most adventurous and fun-loving years of her life,Anne was by all accounts unconcerned about their improvident circumstances and passionately in love with her husband. But when Charles died suddenly that same year, she was left in utter poverty, a widow with three small children. Francis Fremon urged her to move to France with him. The recent accidental fatal shooting of Francis's sixteen-year-old son at a Fourth of July celebration had left him mourning and desirous of returning to his native land. There, Francis assured Anne, the Fremon clan would embrace her brood. But Anne felt herself an ingrained American and would not consider relocating.

Instead, she moved into quarters near the Dinwiddie Courthouse, where John received his first formal instruction. Little is known of their time in Norfolk after Charles's death, though Anne had now taken to calling herself "Mrs. Fremont" with the t. How she survived, owning no property and at thirty-seven years old facing an unpredictable and precarious future, can be attributed to her fortitude, energy, and devotion to her children. She would focus her hopes and dreams on her firstborn son, and John would gallantly rise to the call. He adored his mother, whom he saw as "a woman of most extraordinary grace and beauty, of gentle, captivating manners, with a sweet but singularly melancholy disposition." From that early bond forged with a romantic and independent woman his own respect and admiration of women would be formed.

In 1823, Anne, now nearly destitute, turned her sights several hundred miles down the coast to Charleston, South Carolina, determined as she was to rear her children in genteel surroundings while also offering them the opportunity that the bustling trade center might afford.


Excerpted from Passion and Principle by Sally Denton Copyright © 2007 by Sally Denton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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