John Charles Fremont can claim several firsts as a presidential candidate. He was the first western candidate, coming from California less than six years after it became a state. He was also the first Republican Party candidate. But his biggest first is that he was the first, and only, illegitimate child to be nominated for the presidency by a major party.
Fremont’s mother was Ann Beverly Whiting, the daughter of a very respected Virginia family who had fallen on hard times. She married John Pryor, a man old enough to be her grandfather. It was not a happy marriage, and she left Pryor to live with Charles Fremon, a French immigrant teaching at a private school in Richmond. John Charles was the first of three children born to this illicit relationship.
They moved to Nashville to get a new start. Their first night in Nashville, they stayed at the Nashville Inn. In a coincidence of fate, that same night future President Andrew Jackson and future Senator Thomas Hart Benton had their famous brawl in the lobby and bar of the Nashville Inn. Using a bullwhip, knives and pistols, they destroyed the bar and lobby as well as nearly killing each other. Benton put a pistol ball into Jackson’s shoulder. One of Benton’s stray shots went through the room occupied by the Fremons. The shot just missed the sleeping John Charles, whose mother fainted. His father went into the midst of the fight, screaming at the two participants who had almost killed his baby. Oddly enough, the man who almost killed baby John Charles Fremont was his future father-in-law, Thomas Hart Benton.
When Fremont was only five, his father died. His mother moved the family to Charleston, South Carolina, where she had relatives and where no one knew of their family secret. Fremont entered a circle of wealthy friends and received a good education. After graduating from Charleston College, he became a teacher.
In 1835, Fremont took a job working with the surveyors of a railroad line from Charleston to Cincinnati, Ohio. For the entire summer, he lived outdoors with both white settlers and Indians. This adventure set the tone for the rest of his life. The next year, he joined a survey crew that established the common boundaries of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
Fremont next worked for Joseph Nicolas Nocolett, a famous French scientist and explorer. Over the next several years, Fremont gained from Nicolett the experience and scientific training to lead his own surveying expeditions. As he climbed the official ladder in the United States Coastal Survey, he met many important people, including his future father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton. He also met Benton’s daughter Jessie.
Jessie Fremont was only 15 years old when Fremont met her. She was already attracting the attentions of many young men, and her father had enrolled her in a girl’s boarding school to remove her from the social scene until she was older. Still, Fremont and Jessie Benton were attracted to each other, and became engaged.
Although he liked Fremont, Benton objected to the marriage because of the difference in age between Fremont and Jessie, Fremont’s lack of money, and his army career that would mean long separations. Benton insisted that they wait at least a year before they considered getting married. Benton spent the year on further exploration trips, becoming famous for his exploits.
Fremont returned to marry Jessie Benton, but Benton still objected. The young couple could not find someone to marry them, since the leading ministers in Washington were afraid of angering Senator Benton. Although neither was a Catholic, they found a Catholic priest to marry them. When he found out, Benton exploded in rage and ordered Fremont to leave the house, and Jessie to remain. (One can imagine that Benton may have regretted that his stray shot during his famous brawl with Jackson missed Fremont that day.) Jessie left with Fremont, and Benton eventually accepted their marriage, but demanded they live in his house, to which they agreed. Senator Benton became Fremont’s chief benefactor and supporter, helping his career tremendously.
Over the next three or four years, Fremont made three major expeditions to the far west, enduring hardships, Indian attacks, severe weather, drowning and starvation. After each expedition, both the army and the public eagerly read his reports, and his fame grew. He became nationally famous as The Pathfinder.
Fremont was in California when the Mexican War broke out, and Admiral Stockton named Fremont Governor of California. General Kearny wrote Fremont, then a Lieutenant Colonel, that he (Kearny) was governor. Fremont wrote back that the command structure was something Kearny and Stockton would have to work out for themselves, and declined to turn over the governorship to Kearny. Kearny was named Governor by the President, but did not tell Fremont right away.
When Kearny finally took over the government of California, he ordered Fremont back to Washington. When Fremont reached Fort Leavenworth, Kearny had Fremont arrested. Fremont was charged with mutiny, disobeying a superior officer, and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. The penalty for mutiny could have been death.
The court-martial was a major news event, and was carried in the newspapers every day. Fremont, not allowed a civilian lawyer, conducted all the questioning of witnesses himself. After three days of deliberations, the court found Fremont guilty. Then, in a contradiction of their own verdict, declared that Fremont’s error was not intentional and blamed an unclear chain of command for the mistake. In the verdict, the court recommended that the President pardon Fremont, which the President did. Fremont, angry at the verdict, resigned from the army.
Fremont and his wife settled in California, where they had purchased land. When California became a state in 1850, Fremont was one of the first two U.S. Senators elected from California. One senator was to receive a full six-year term and the other a two-year term. They drew straws, and Fremont lost. Fremont served for one session of Congress before he had to run for re-election. Because of his strong anti-slavery views, he was defeated.
In 1856, Democratic leaders approached Fremont to try to get him to run for President on their party ticket. When they would not accept his strong anti-slavery views, he declined. But the new Republican Party embraced Fremont and his anti-slavery views, and nominated him as their first Presidential candidate.
Fremont was completely unprepared for the world of politics. The campaign was an extremely abusive one, with Fremont criticized for his illegitimate birth, his court martial, his Mexican War service, and even for being a Catholic. Fremont lost the election, but did much better than expected, leaving him a power in the Republican Party.
When the Civil War started, Fremont was in Europe on personal business. Lincoln planned to make him Minister to France, but Secretary of State Seward objected. Instead, Fremont was made a Major General in the army, and given command of the Department of the West, with his headquarters in St. Louis. Fremont was no businessman, and made many bad decisions in signing army contracts for supplies. In addition, he issued an order on his own freeing the slaves of Confederate supporters in his department. Lincoln asked Fremont to retract the order, which Fremont refused to do. Lincoln countermanded the order, and removed Fremont. Fremont was then given command of the Mountain Department in western Virginia. In May and June of 1862, Fremont was one of the Union generals soundly defeated by Stonewall Jackson in his famous Valley Campaign. After this defeat, he was placed under the command of General Pope, which was a demotion for Fremont. Fremont requested to be relieved of duty, which Lincoln did.
In 1864, Republicans and some Democrats dissatisfied with Lincoln’s leadership, and thinking Lincoln a sure loser, nominated Fremont for President. In September, after the fall of Atlanta made Lincoln’s re-election a sure thing, Fremont withdrew from the race. This was the end of Fremont’s role on the stage of national politics.
Fremont’s last years were spent in near poverty. He invested in several failed western railroads, which wiped out his fortune. The government tried to help him out of respect for his service to his country. He was governor of the Arizona Territory from 1878 to 1883. In his last year, the government restored him to the rank of Major General on the retired list, providing him a generous pension. Fremont died while visiting friends in New York City in 1890.