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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

NPR Morning Edition Host Steve Inskeep Shares Highlights From His New Book

 February 5, 2020 at 10:44 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Steven scheme can be exasperating as the host of morning edition. You want to hate the guy for waking you up each day. But then you start to listen and there's that information you need delivered with warmth, intelligence, and humor. So it's exasperating. And now even with the ungodly hours, his job forces him to keep. Steven scape is out with a remarkable book about one of America's first celebrity politicians and he's taken time out to talk with us. His new book is called imperfect union. How Jesse and John Fremont mapped the West invented celebrity and helped cause the civil war. Here's his interview with midday edition host Maureen Cavanagh. What is it about John and Jesse Fremont that kept you from the rest you so much deserve? Oh, well thank you. I get Speaker 2: 00:48 into writing and I really love history and uh, I love learning about American history in particular. And in this case, John and Jesse Fremont touched a bunch of the greatest events of the 19th century at a time when America was taking shape. And I mean, taking shape, literally. I mean you, I w we're, we're talking here on a radio station and a part of the United States that wasn't a part of the United States at the beginning of my story, which is the story of this Western Explorer, John Charles Fremont, who from the 1840s the early 1840s through to the middle 1850s conducted a series of expeditions starting in st Louis, which was then the Western most city in the United States out to the Oregon country, out to what was then Mexican controlled California. He didn't actually discover that much. That was particularly new, but he went back to Washington D C and wrote best selling accounts of his adventures. Speaker 2: 01:48 He would write these formal reports, but he would write them like a novel describing everything that had happened to him as he went through the Rockies and across the deserts and over the Sierra Nevada's and in the snows. And these accounts would be excerpted in newspapers and published as popular books. And when I looked into their story, Jessica and John Fremont, I realized two things. First, she was a huge part of it all. She was his secretary, editor, sometimes writing partner, sometimes even ghost writer as he put this information out there and she was also his political advisor and publicist. But the other thing that I realized, which makes this one of many, many things that makes us a really modern story is that the publicity they generated was the point. He was doing this in order to entice people to move from the Eastern United States out to the West because Jesse's father, the powerful Senator, believed that that was the way that the United States would take over land. American settlers would go there. Speaker 1: 02:49 You know, in California, we may be more familiar with John Fremont than many areas of the country simply because there are places named after him. What was his role in California history? Speaker 2: 03:00 He began the process of taking over California from Mexico. He first visited in 1844 he was thrashing around in the West and needed supplies and thrashed over the Sierra Nevada's in the snow and got a, got supplies actually from a guy named John Sutter, a famous figure in California history, a near setters Fort and wasn't chanted by California and went back on his next expedition in 1845. 1846. This is a time when the United States was facing tensions with Mexico over the U S acquisition of Texas. And so people thought a war might be coming, but Fremont going into California didn't know if there would or there wouldn't. Nevertheless, he participated in a series of increasingly provocative and erratic and strange acts that antagonized the Mexican authorities until they ordered him to leave, confronted him with force. And this started a chain of events that ended with American settlers in California proclaiming an independent Republic. It was called the bear flag Republic because they had a flag with a bear on it, which is now the inspiration for the state flag. And then the U S Navy appeared off the coast. And, uh, the Commodore concluded that if John C Fremont was inland conducting some kind of military operation, he must know the war with Mexico was on. So the Commodores sent ashore, sailors and Marines to raise the American flag and seize the ports of California. And that is how the United States claimed California. Speaker 1: 04:35 Now you say that this sort of first Washington power couple, Jesse and John Fremont also helped cause the civil war. How, how did that happen? Speaker 2: 04:45 The United States was divided between Northern States that had gradually abolished slavery and Southern States that had increasingly embraced slavery always in the past, major political parties, if they wanted to win, if they wanted to capture the presidency, they needed to appeal for Northern and Southern votes. They didn't want to alienate southerners. And so they would remain silent on slavery or tacitly or overtly support slavery. It wasn't possible. It seemed to have an antislavery national political party, but there was a great demographic change going on in the country. The North was growing far more rapidly in population than the South. That population increase meant an increase in political power because it was a Republic because of the census, because house representation and electoral votes were determined by the number of people, and it became apparent by the 1850s that it was possible plausible anyway to elect a president with Northern votes alone, and that's what made it possible for the Republican party to be an anti-slavery party. They didn't actually call for abolition. That was considered an extreme position, but they called for limiting the spread of slavery. They didn't want slavery to be established in the Western territories that John Charles Fremont had helped to open up to American settlement and the person they chose as their first presidential nominee, this seemingly grand and heroic figure was John C Fremont. Speaker 1: 06:14 Steve, as we read imperfect union, will we see any similarities between him and our own celebrity president? Speaker 2: 06:21 Oh my goodness. Well, I mean there is one kind of celebrity and that is that Fremont got to be a nominee because he was so talented at publicizing himself and our current president. I don't think it would be much denied that he's very talented at getting publicity himself and that was one thing that that he did throughout his career leading up to his campaign for the presidency. In other ways, I'm not exactly sure is a very different kind of personality. Had he been elected, he would have been a very different president, but what I think is similar is not the personalities of the individual candidates, but the times. This was a time when the nation was divided, the nation was divided over questions of race. The nation was divided over immigrants. There was a powerful anti-immigrant movement at that time. There was a particular fear of immigrants who practiced what was seen as a dangerous and alien religion, Catholicism, and there was also this great demographic change going on that was destabilizing and made some people fear they'd be shut out of power forever. Speaker 2: 07:23 A lot of those things are happening in slightly different ways today. We have our own battles over immigration. We have our own arguments over race and we have this big demographic change in the country where America's becoming more diverse and that can be destabilizing because people of color, immigrants, the groups that are growing more rapidly than others are voting in more off more often than not for one political party, the Democrats, president Trump explicitly invoked that fear in his campaign in 2016 telling his supporters, this is your last chance, your last chance to save the country before we're flooded with immigrants and Democrats will let them vote. That was his theory in 2016 and people responded to that because there was that anxiety more widely in the country and now we also have Democrats. By the way, your fear of being shut out of power forever because of the way the president is appointing conservative justices, judges to lifetime appointments and is also a running, running, running over many of the rules of the presidency and behaving in an authoritarian way as Democrats would see it. Speaker 1: 08:30 The similarities we've been talking about are from a new book, imperfect union. How Jesse and John Fremont map the West invented celebrity and helped cause the civil war. And the author is someone you know quite well for morning edition Steve Inscape, and it's been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for taking the time. Speaker 2: 08:49 It's been a pleasure having this discussion. Thank you.

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”Imperfect Union, how Jessie and John Fremont mapped the west, invented celebrity and helped cause the Civil War” is the title of NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep's new book. Along with fascinating stories about the settlement of the west, Inskeep talks about parallels between what was happening then, and now.
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