The Rising Empire
John Charles Fremont lived a life whose epic breadth, romantic aura, and dramatic bends and curves resembled that of a character invented by, say, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad or, better yet, James Fenimore Cooper. It was Cooper, after all, who conjured the original "Pathfinder." In his 1840 novel of that title, Cooper hung the sobriquet on his plucky frontier protagonist, Natty Bumppo.
Two years later, when Fremont caught the eye of the American public, the editors of that era's penny press simply transferred the title to the dashingly handsome twenty-nine-year-old explorer. But Fremont was seldom a true pathfinder in that word's literal sense, and except during his 1856 presidential campaign, in which his political handlers incessantly invoked the term he never called himself one. He tended to survey already-established paths. Even so, in the explorer's widely read tales of his Western adventures, the public found enough Natty Bumppo to make the title seem apt. By compelling U.S. citizens to reimagine the geographic breadth and diversity of their nation, John Fremont more than earned the Pathfinder title.
As a leader of scientific expeditions, Fremont was often brilliant but also impulsive, vainglorious, and given to quixotic behavior. As a military leader, his actions were often even more inscrutable: he was impetuous and, throughout his life, displayed a career-crippling disdain for authority. Though rumors of libertinism and suggestions of financial improbity followed him through his life, he was otherwise rigorously self-disciplined, and austere in his personal habits. He avoided sharing a tent with anyone who smoked, he limited his drinking to the occasional splash of claret in a glass of water, and chess was his rowdiest indulgence.
The explorer's name endures in the names of over a hundred U.S. places ranging from counties and towns to mountains and rivers. His legacy endures, too, in California's state flag, patterned after the Bear Flag Revolt to which he lent his name, and in the scores of Western places that he named from the Great Basin to the Humboldt River to the Golden Gate.
Fremont's career transpired before Americans parsed travel distances with automobile odometers and frequent flier points. Though he lived long enough to take trains across the country, his glory years belonged to an era when travelers seldom moved faster than the speed of a galloping horse. And no one of that era saw more of the North American continent than John C. Fremont, not even Lewis and Clark. They, after all, made but one transcontinental expedition. Fremont participated in ten exploring expeditions four of them transcontinental crossings.
Even a cursory survey of the nineteenth century's most significant writers including Whittier, Greeley, Emerson, and Whitman reveals that Fremont held a central position in U.S. public life. That, after all, is why the Republicans twice called him to run for the presidency. And why President Lincoln appointed him, to command the Union's forces in the Department of the West. This explorer, mapper, naturalist, Indian fighter, soldier, politician, and railroad speculator embodied U.S. expansionism. As the nominal leader of the U.S. conquest of California, Fremont stood at the end of the nation's long push to the Pacific coast. Equally important were his ties, direct and indirect, to earlier expansionists. Fremont was, after all, the son-in-law and protege of Thomas Hart Benton, the U.S. Senate's chief advocate and architect of U.S. expansion into the Trans-Missouiri West, and history had linked Benton to Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and Lewis and Clark.
A thoroughly Byronic figure, Fremont was born in Savannah, Georgia, and grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where he received his formal education at the College of Charleston. During the 1830s, he assisted government surveys of the Cherokee country of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and of the broad plateau between the Upper Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. During the 1840s, he led three federally funded exploring expeditions of the West that captured the public's imagination and inspired thousands of Easterners often with Fremont's expedition reports in hand to move west.
Fremont's expedition writings, published initially by the U.S. Senate and widely reissued by private publishers, made him the mid-nineteenth century's chief popularizer of the American West. "Until the late explorations conducted by Col. Fremont [sic], very erroneous ideas have prevailed in regard to the character of the country to the westward of the Rocky Mountains," DeBow's Review noted in 1849. "It was customary to denounce it a hopeless, sterile waste, where the arts of civilized men could never prevail."
The scientific knowledge Fremont collected advanced the West's fortification, settlement, agriculture, and mining as well as the federal governments ongoing subjugation of Indian peoples. Moreover, his explorations vanquished centuries of cartographic errors from the maps everything from continent-shrinking distortions to mythical rivers and lakes. As Arctic explorer Adolphus Greely assessed the explorer's legacy in 1893, "In few instances did it fall to Fremont's lot to first explore any section of the country, but it was his good fortune, as it was his intent, to first contribute systematic, extended, and reliable data as to climate, elevation, physical conditions, and geographical positions." Equally important perhaps more important Fremont, though never a political philosopher indeed, by all accounts, never much given to abstract thoughts nevertheless compelled Americans to rethink the literal, political, and metaphysical contours of what citizens of that day were not embarrassed to call the American empire.
Writing to President James K. Polk in the summer of 1846, U.S. Navy commodore Robert Stockton concluded, praising the U.S. forces who had placed California under Old Glory's dominion, "They deserve it, they did the work; and have secured by their toil and daring this beautiful Empire." Evoking the same spirit, journalist Bayard Taylor entitled his collection of dispatches from mid-nineteenth-century California Eldorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire. And Littell's Living Age, in 1850, noting John Fremont's role in pushing America's westward expansion, lauded "his controlling energy in the extension of our empire."
For Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers, such approving talk of American empire would have occasioned no embarrassment. From the nation's infancy, they had envisioned nothing less for the independent nation-state. The means by and the form in which those aspirations eventually came to fruition, however, would have surprised them. At least initially, when the Founders and their generational peers thought about such matters, they took Great Britain as their model that is, a nation-state of limited size, but possessed of a far-flung maritime empire, or, in the case of Jefferson, a dispersed collection of sister republics.
By the early 1850s, when Fremont had concluded his major explorations, Americans understood that their empire would be different. To understand Fremont's legacy, then, one must first understand how early Americans thought about their country and how they embraced their vision of American empire.
In the year 2000, the American urban theorist Jane Jacobs, by way of explaining an earlier decision to move to Canada, told the New York Times, "I'm glad I was brought up an American, but I'm not cut out to be a citizen of an empire." By the end of the second millennium, the word empire had become, for most Americans, distasteful. Redolent of images of garish thrones, belligerent seafaring armies crashing on foreign shores, and pocket-lining colonial officials.
This was not always the case. Through much of the nation's history, the word empire enjoyed a positive connotation. Indeed, not until the 1870s did its less rosy derivative, imperialism, firmly entrench itself in the language. George Washington, for instance, referred optimistically to the United States as "a rising empire." Thomas Jefferson spoke of the nation as an expanding "empire for liberty." And in 1856, Abraham Lincoln, then an ambitious former congressman, speaking to a rally in Kalamazoo, Michigan, assured his audience, "We are a great empire," then linked that domain's continued prosperity to the election of the presidential candidate on whose behalf he was orating that day John Fremont.
Empire the word derives from the Roman word imperium and, in its original usage, referred to the power exercised by that city-state's emperors. But during the Middle Ages, the term was applied to the vast territories and their inhabitants ruled by any conquering power. By the early eighteenth century, as European nation-states established far-flung colonies, the term more commonly referred to the naval might and regulatory machinery by which they enforced trade monopolies with their dispersed colonies and enriched their national coffers.
Within such mercantilist empires, colonies functioned less as areas to be settled, more as opportunities for enriching the home country, the metropolis. Colonies existed mainly as suppliers of raw materials for manufacturing industries in the metropolis, and as a captive market for the goods produced by those industries. Among the British, to the extent the term empire referred to physical geography, it referred not to conquered lands but to the oceanic waters prowled by the British Navy. Britain's poet James Thomson captured the essence of the new concept when, in "Britannia, A Poem," he praised his nation's "well earned Empire of the deep" and exhorted his compatriots to "extend your reign from shore to shore." Mercantilists, after all, tended to limit their attention to ports; thriving settlements in the interior might encourage too much autonomy and industry.
*Endnotes were omitted.
Copyright © 2002 Tom Chaffin