Prelude to Lincoln

Every year in July, the town of Fremont, Neb., hosts John C. Fremont Days, a weekend festival that seems to involve most of the citizens of the small city of 25,000 about 30 miles west of Omaha.

Festivities are held in more than one site, but at the city park downtown where many of the activities are held, there is a statute — of Abraham Lincoln.

This might seem incongruous at first. The cit of Fremont, holding a Fremont-themed festival, at a site with a statue of Lincoln. But actually, it makes perfect sense.

Without Fremont, there probably wouldn’t have been a Lincoln.

John C. Fremont’s reputation as the “Pathfinder” rested on the accomplishments of his five expeditions to the West, in which he explored the Rocky Mountains, the Oregon Trail, the Sierra Nevada, and other admittedly inhospitable – but nevertheless previously explored – territory.

But Fremont was not so much a pathfinder as he was a path populizer. Beginning with the reports on his 1842 and 1843-44 journeys to Oregon and – against orders — Utah and California, which were lovingly edited by his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, the Army officer gained a level of fame rare for a soldier who was not a hero in arms.

Their “Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44,” published in 1845, became an instant best seller and all but holy scripture for immigrants heading west in the 1840s. John’s detailed observations combined with Jessie’s romantic notions and talents as an editor to cast the West in an entirely new light for many Americans. Previously derided as the Great American Desert, Easterners began to see the possibilities in the new land, thanks in large part to the sweeping grandeur of the Fremonts’ prose.

Fremont, a naturally reticent man, reveled in the glory. For the next decade and more, he was one of the most revered men in the country. Far from any fifteen minutes of fame, the Fremont Moment would last a dozen years, and he would make the most of the moment while it lasted through multiple expeditions, triumphs and travails in the Mexican War, disputes with his powerful father-in-law — Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton — legal wrangling over a gold mining claim in California, election as that state’s first senator, and finally, as the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party.

And Jessie would be right there every step of the way. Much more politically savvy than her husband, she was an aide-de-camp to her father, that most boisterous proponent of westward expansion, her husband’s great political patron and protector, and a volatile man whose relationship with his favorite daughter was unusually close and periodically tempestuous.

Fremont knew what he had in her, and was not reluctant to make use of the asset. Jessie Benton Fremont would play a role in the 1856 presidential campaign unimagined by any wife before her. In addition to her own participation, which was unique enough, for the first time other women, as well as free people of color had a cause and a campaign in which they felt a kinship. The Republican Party was no bastion of equal rights, to be sure. While some abolitionists attached themselves to the party, its senior leadership and party platform claimed no more than an opposition to the extension of slavery into new territory. Some of these men  were as racist as the slavery-supporting Democrats they opposed. But the party of “free soil, free men and Fremont” nevertheless inspired a hope that things might be better, a hope that had never really existed until 1856. For many African Americans in antebellum America, that was astonishing enough.

While Fremont was traipsing around in the mountains of the West, Lincoln was practicing law and trying to jump-start a not very successful political career. He had been a state legislator, and served one term in Congress, where he ineffectively opposed the war that Fremont was fighting. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 would bring Lincoln back into politics full time, where he would lose two more Senate races and be considered for the vice presidency on the ticket with Fremont in 1856.

Fremont would lose the election of 1856 to James Buchanan, who would go on to lead what many consider to be the most disastrous presidential administration in American history. Fremont would serve – not terribly successfully – in the war that followed. Both he and his wife would cause Lincoln no small measure of grief during the war.

But in 1856 the Pathfinder who had made his fame by following in the footsteps of others would, after all, blaze a trail. His campaign, unique in the annals of politics to that time, showed the way to victory for another candidate, a man less reticent personally and more prepared temperamentally for the rigorous challenge of national crisis. Where John C. Fremont led, Abraham Lincoln would follow.

That shared moment in time seems to make the shared space in Fremont, Neb., appropriate.

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