Jessie Benton Frémont: A Woman Who Made History

Jessie Benton Frémont: A Woman Who Made History

Jessie Benton Frémont: A Woman Who Made History

Jessie Benton Frémont: A Woman Who Made History

Synopsis

A favorite of President Andrew Jackson and the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Jessie Benton was acquainted with the famous from childhood. When the vivacious belle met John C. Fremont, "the handsomest young man who ever walked the streets of Washington", love bloomed. Always passionately devoted to the controversial explorer, soldier, and politician, Jessie bore John five children, maintained a family life, charmed and campaigned on his behalf, and helped him write the popular reports of his western trailblazing. These pages, filled with public figures such as Kit Carson and Abraham Lincoln, present a lively and fearless woman.

Excerpt

From the furious debates over Hillary Rodham Clinton at one end of the public spectrum, to burgeoning revisionist scholarship on Eleanor Roosevelt at the other, "political wives" are an intensely topical subject. It is to this lineage that Jessie Benton Frémont belongs. Daughter of one famous expansionist--Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri--and wife to another--the western surveyor John Charles Frémont--she was a brilliant, indefatigable, and charming woman who occupied, for much of the nineteenth century, that ambiguous position associated with high-profile First Ladies of more recent decades.

She was present at some of the defining moments of America's expansionist phase: the opening of westward emigration routes; the gold rush; California's statehood convention; the birth of the Republican party and its first presidential campaign, with Frémont as candidate; the Missouri theater of conflict during the Civil War. Yet her precise impact on these events defies accurate measurement. Confidante and mediator to the inner circle of national politicians, she held no appointed or elected office. She can be understood as, alternately, a wielder of significant behind-the-scenes influence or a mere sounding board for those with real power, cast by the proprieties of her age in a supporting role. In reading Jessie Benton Frémont's remarkable story, we are also challenged to appreciate the significance of women who accompany their mates into the political arena and to assess their functions, their spheres of influence, their larger meanings in American culture.

One thing is clear: Jessie Frémont was a key player in the production and maintenance of her husbands image. In this sense, the subtitle of this biography is precise. Without Jessie, Frémont might well have mapped routes for America's westward movement; he almost certainly would not have inscribed his adventures into the nation's recorded history. According to Catherine Coffin Phillips and others, Frémont found himself spent at the end of his first topographical expedition to the Rocky Mountains, utterly unable to compose a coherent report . . .

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