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Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War
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Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  771 ratings  ·  160 reviews
Steve Inskeep tells the riveting story of John and Jessie Frémont, the husband and wife team who in the 1800s were instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States, and thus became America's first great political couple

In 1813, John Frémont was born a nobody. His mother conceived him out of wedlock, and at age 13, in Charleston, South Carolina, he was sent to wo
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published January 14th 2020 by Penguin Press
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Start your review of Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War
Peter Beck
Jun 07, 2020 rated it liked it
How could I not love a book about a fearless explorer who almost becomes president of the U.S. on the eve of the Civil War? A book written by the wonderful host of my favorite radio show, NPR’s “Morning Edition” no less. On top of that, my father’s house is located on our hero’s former property! Unfortunately, Steve Inskeep makes it painfully clear that John Fremont was not as impressive as I had expected. Inskeep also needed more time to bring his protagonist into focus.

Despite spending over 20
I enjoyed listening to this book. . .and must admit that it felt very contemporary. This may be because the author was the narrator, and so felt in places rather NPRish. All the fighting and biting and pointing and poking! Oh, and dueling! As stupid as we feel today about our politicos and their tussles, at least they aren't going out behind bushes and killing each other over handkerchiefs and mislaid insults. Wait. ? Maybe that would solve some. . .no. forget I said anything. . . .

From the ori
Jul 12, 2020 rated it liked it
The name Fremont is everywhere: cities, streets, two mountain peaks and even a hotel. Even for a history buff like me, how he earned this acclaim was unclear. Did these namings and this book’s sub-title mean I’ve missed someone historically significant? No. Each of Fremont’s notable deeds has qualifiers – he is a dubious hero.. Now that we’re re-naming places and things, perhaps his recognition should be re-considered.

Fremont’s talent for math transferred well to working with a sextant a key tec
Jan 25, 2020 rated it liked it
It does put you into the wide open feeling of the period. And how intrepid individuals, despite having all kinds of negatives/ faults etc. could truly roam.

Both of this Fremont couple were interesting studies for such length of histories. Never forget that they were through Jessie and associations, elites of the time. I don't think that association placement was emphasized to the importance it played in the various exploration financial supports.

I'm not so sure that without California or Oregon
Bob Mayer
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I'd heard the name Fremont, of course, but knew little about him until I started researching the history of the west, around the time of the Mexican War, the bloodiest war, percentage-war, we've ever fought. His name kept coming up so I read an older biography. A man of contradictions whose political connections through his wife is key to this book.
Well-researched and smoothly written, I've added it to my library. I recommend it for those who want to understand the convoluted politics of the tim
Barbara H
Today while listening to NPR, I heard Steve Inskeep tell the riveting, sometimes humorous story of this book. It makes me shudder to think how closely today's political climate resembles much of what he was saying. I hope to read this soon. ...more
Brian Eshleman
Pretty good. To calibrate my rating, I've generally got a four or five-star interest in those blissful instances when technology, communications, biography, and border history converge, so that makes this just a slight disappointment. I didn't really feel like I got to know the contours of John Fremont's soul or the detailed texture of his times. ...more
Mar 18, 2020 rated it it was ok
I wanted to like this, but the author makes it hard. The writing is pretty flat and uninspired, and full of historical guesses of the "such an event would have interested the Fremonts, who may well have attended" type. Judging by the paucity of information in here, there's just not much to say about this couple. John was known for exploring the west and California, and Jessie for being smarter and more interesting than her husband, and for writing about his adventures, thus making him, and her, ...more
Feb 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A graceful biography of the 1856 presidential candidate and famed explorer, this book connects on all the right levels. We learn almost as much about Mrs. Fremont as we do about John Charles. The narrative follows his life from infancy through the military and into California during the Gold Rush era. The author makes the deduction that without Fremont, there would have been no Civil War, or that it would have occurred later than it did. Overall, a good starting point for anyone wanting to learn ...more
Porter Broyles
When I started this book I really didn't know what to think. I knew that John Fremont was one of those oft overlooked figures in American History.

John Fremont was the first Republican Candidate for president (without him Lincoln arguably would not have won in 1860. He was crucial in establishing the "Bear Flag Republic". Yes, Captian Fremont was responsible for California---the story is more complex than that, but you cannot study California history withou Fremont. Before that, Fremont was a fa
Angie Boyter
Dec 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: edelweiss
A perfect union of biography and history
Imperfect Union is the story of John and Jessie Fremont, a couple who had a significant impact in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. It is also the story of the imperfect union among the states themselves and how controversies about slavery and also immigration (sound familiar?) led to the Civil War. It tells of a third “imperfect union” from the period, too, and that was the chasm between the eastern part of the continent and the west. Uniti
Sep 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, history
I listen the Steve Inskeep each morning on NPR's Morning Edition, where he is notable for the quality and insight of his reporting. Apparently he also has an aptitude for history. This excellent, highly readable, and well documented book traces the remarkable life of John Fremont as a highly acclaimed explorer and westward expansionist. Innskeep makes the credible case that Fremont's exploits had good timing, as the United States looked westward in the 1840's, but even better fortune in the pers ...more
Nov 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Engrossing account of the unusual marriage of Jessie and John Frémont about whom little is known today but who were celebrities in their own time. John was a restless (and perhaps a tad mentally unstable) explorer who abandoned his family for substantial stretches of time while recklessly leading ill-conceived expeditions to the west, the details of which are harrowing to say the least. Try to imagine, for example, pushing the men under his command forward over 10,00 feet peaks in waist-deep sno ...more
Gary Moreau
Feb 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The mid-19th Century American push westward was one of the defining moments of American history. Not only did it provide room for expansion for a growing nation, it created the possibility of a land bridge between Europe and Asia, and it ultimately led to the Civil War and the end of slavery, since with expansion came an assault on the delicate balance between slave owning and free states that previously existed.

In the midst of it all, what columnist and editor John L. O’Sullivan coined as Ameri
Robert Melnyk
Feb 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book about the lives of John and Jesse Frémont. I'd read some books about Frémont before, and this one put a slightly different perspective on his life and his legacy. While he was definitely highly involved in westward expansion and exploration, this book seemed to downplay not so much his significance in these areas, but definitely his overall skills and abilities. It was sort of presented almost as if he attained his accomplishments happened in spite of himself rather than due to ...more
May 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
So glad I read this during Virus Shutdown. I got it from the library March 13, just before it closed. Since I picked up a couple other higher priority books that day, I would've never even started this one in the 3 weeks we normally have. Never did I dream that it would it speak so much to today's history still unfolding. And what to say about Fremont? What psychology? Maybe just one of those humans with a genetic make-up that propelled far distant ancestors to wander out of Africa, explore deep ...more
Jon Davids
A very influential couple in US history, now largely forgotten, whose surname graces towns and several mountains throughout the American West. John C Fremont's ambition was, unfortunately, not matched by his intellect. Jessie Fremont, his wife, was blessed with a remarkable intellect and political insight, but had to channel her ambition through her husband due to restrictive gender boundries imposed by the society of the times. Together they were more than the sum of their parts, and they start ...more
Elizabeth Frey-Thomas
Sep 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Interesting dive into the lives of John and Jessie Fremont. In a time when many folks have forgotten (or never learned) that the US was not always so vast, and that Cincinnati was once considered the far western reach, it is fascinating to read about people who not only fell into the push for California almost by accident, but also managed to promote themselves almost to the White House. It is also fascinating to get the political backdrop of the decade and a half or so, leading up to the Civil ...more
Kevin Jones
Mar 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
A fascinating account of a controversial and thrilling figure. I also appreciated the multi-faceted view of this volatile time in U.S. history.
Apr 04, 2020 rated it liked it
Having heard Steve Inskeep on NPR, I was not surprised to find this an interesting and well researcher book. Much was already familiar to me, but not all.
Astrid De parry
It was okay but not wonderful.
Mar 11, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
I liked this at first, but ended up DNF-ing at 43% because it wasn't interesting and life is short. ...more
Tom Griffiths
Aug 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
I loved this book. Well written and insightful into the characters and the times. My only complaint was the epilogue. I think there should have been a full chapter on the civil war portion of his life.
Lyn nep
Mar 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
What an eye-opener! The Fremonts were certainly movers and shakers! I had never heard of most of these important stories in our country’s history. Jessie Benton Frémont might be my newest heroine!
Feb 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
John C. and Jesse Fremont were the most notable power couple of the mid 19th century. He was "The Pathfinder", the great explorer of the West, and the first Republican presidential candidate. She was his amanuensis, his publicist, his defender, and political advisor, She was so much more than his better half that it was said, that between the two, "she was the better man".
It was unlikely that these two would ever come together. John C. Fremont was largely a self creation. He was born Fremon, th
Mar 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Bravo to Steve Inskeep for this fascinating portrait of Jessie and John Fremont and his depiction of a complex era in history – one with many elements in common with our own. With the invention of the telegraph, technology is shaping opinions and events with lightning speed. Divisive politics are reaching a critical point with the prospect of the spread of slavery as new states are brought into the Union. Through what seems an uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time, John Frem ...more
Apr 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I've always been interested in John and Jessie Fremont so I dove into this mid-1800s historical tale about when the Fremonts were the reigning power couple of their day. Think Ron and Nancy Reagan, or maybe Kanye and Kim? John was a true celebrity in the shallowest form of the word – he did audacious things that were publicized by his wife to create a mythology bearing little resemblance to the man himself. I grew up thinking of Fremont as a famous western explorer, but upon closer examination, ...more
Andy Miller
Aug 20, 2020 rated it liked it
I finished this biography not liking John Fremont and wishing that Jessie Benton Fremont had been born in a different time that would have allowed her natural talents lead to real achievements. Fremont is famous for his explorations across the West. Those are described in detail here and while they show fortitude they also show a lack of common sense and lack of caring about the men he led in such decisions as crossing the Rockies and Sierras in the winter. One exploration into California coinci ...more
Jul 29, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Steve Inskeep's book "Imperfect Union" tells the story of the westward expansion of the young United States in the mid-19th Century. Central to the story is the role John Fremont played in exploring and mapping sections of the West. His stories of exploration became popular in the country, which in turn led to further westward expansion. His explorations brought him over the Rockies, to Utah, to the Oregon Territory, and to present day California when it was still part of Mexico. He was a leadin ...more
Stephanie Kerr
Jan 24, 2020 rated it liked it
In Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War, Steve Inskeep maps the military and political career of John Fremont and his wife Jessie. John Fremont was an explorer in the first half of the eighteenth century. He explored parts of the west in search of paths to Oregon and California. His success in this area, along with his connections, led him to a political career and eventually a presidential nomination in the newly establ ...more
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Steve Inskeep (/ˈɪnskiːp/; born June 16, 1968) is one of the current hosts of Morning Edition on National Public Radio. He, along with co-host David Greene and Rachel Martin were assigned as interim hosts to succeed Bob Edwards after NPR reassigned Edwards to Senior Correspondent after April 30, 2004. Inskeep and Montagne were officially named hosts of Morning Edition in December 2004. (David Gree ...more

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95 likes · 87 comments
“Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the capital and called upon Mrs. Frémont. She was “excellent company,” he said, showing “good sense and good humour,” but also expressing “musical indignation” as she was “incessantly accusing the Government of the vast wrong that had been done to the General.” 2 likes
“As a private individual in 1849, he saw his interests clearly, acted sensibly, and employed people with the skills he needed. As a legislator in 1850, he was part of a system, joining a group of men who were thinking in the abstract about categories of people who were not like them.” 1 likes
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