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Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

This 19th Century Political Power Couple Holds Lessons for Modern America

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Image credit: Library of Congress

Jessie and John Freemont were prominent pubic figures at the time, straddling various public spheres including travel, literature, and politics. NPR’s Steve Inskeep’s new book chronicles their lives and how the era had similarities to our own.

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It was an era of political division, a rapidly changing media environment and anti-immigrant sentiment. 

No, not 21st century America. This was in the mid-1800’s, when the country was on the brink of civil war and a new political party emerged, the Republican party, to meet the needs of a changing electorate. 

Jessie and John Freemont were prominent pubic figures at the time, straddling various public spheres including travel, literature, and politics. John was actually the first Republican nominee for President in 1856, when he was attacked for being anti-slavery and for his Catholic faith, referenced by the cross Fremont holds in the political cartoon at the top of this post.

A new book chronicles the couple and the time they lived in, which offers unusual parallels to today. 


Click on the player to hear more NPR’s Steve Inskeep on his new book chronicling America’s first political power couple. 


Jake Neher/WDET
Jake Neher/WDET

Today’s Guest

Steve Inskeep, host of “NPR’s Morning Edition,” and NPR’s news podcast ”Up First,” is the author of a new book, “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Freemont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity and Helped Cause the Civil War.“ 

Inskeep joins Detroit Today with Jake Neher to talk about the Freemonts’ rise to political fame and the bearing the couple had on American history. 

The Freemont’s can be thought of as the original influencers, says Inskeep. In chronicling his own travel expeditions, John Freemont actually encouraged many to venture west. This newly discovered land, spurred by Freemont’s voyages, ignited debate over whether the area would be free territory or slave territory. The dispute that ensued over this land was a key factor in inciting the civil war.

This era of division and strife brought about the creation of the Republican Party, and John Freemont was the new party’s first nominee. His wife, Jessie, was a mainstay on his campaign. There were songs about her, chants invoking her name, and campaign literature in which she was prominently featured. The attention and admiration the couple drew didn’t come without a price. Inskeep says you can go back and see that, for the most part, people were arguing about the same things, leveling the same charges against political opponents, and preoccupied with similar debates as today. 

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