Fremont, California is once again shorthand for pioneering—as the factory headquarters of the Tesla, the pathbreaking electric car.
Sometimes, geography is destiny: Mastercard, fittingly, is headquartered in Purchase, New York. John C. Frémont, the man after whom Tesla’s hometown of 233,000 was named in 1956, was America’s Pathfinder. As a pioneer, he helped popularize the settling of the West. As a soldier, he helped expand America. And as a politician, he helped hew the path for America to become the land of the free.
But Tesla stockholders beware: Frémont’s biography, like California’s history, was rocked by earthquakes. The army arrested and court-martialed him. Abraham Lincoln fired him. The Panic of 1873 bankrupted him.
Frémont was born into chaos. Born out of wedlock in 1813, after his mother’s rich older husband hired a charming young French immigrant to teach her French, Frémont grew up surrounded by sneers. By the time he reached college, his impulsiveness was already unchecked. Smitten by a young woman named Cecilia, he later recalled, “I lived in the glow of passion.”
When he neglected his schoolwork, the College of Charleston expelled him for “incorrigible negligence,” three months before graduation day. Frémont called the punishment “Sweet as a perfumed breeze.” Being freed from his studies left more time for sweet Cecilia. Like Bill Clinton, Frémont was as deft at coping with disasters as he was at creating them.
Frémont’s marriage to Jesse Benton also began scandalously. Senator Thomas Hart Benton disapproved of the 28-year-old bastard eloping with his politically savvy but innocent 17-year-old daughter. Senator Benton soon relented. Frémont chose well. Jesse Benton Frémont was as resilient as her husband, as shrewd as her father, and better than both at writing, publicizing, and stoking their legends.
Frémont disliked his nickname “Pathfinder”—taken from the James Fenimore Cooper novels. Frémont followed others’ paths. His genius was in chronicling his expeditions, drawing maps, cataloguing the natural wonders, and sharing his compelling descriptions—edited by Jesse Frémont—with the public. His books—often published by the U.S. Senate—romanticized yet normalized moving out West.
Beyond four transcontinental expeditions with the Army Corps of Topogrophical Engineers, ten overall, many with his heroic scout Kit Carson, Frémont embodied American nationalism and expansionism. Americans got a kick in their patriotic adrenals when they read about this explorer planting a flag atop the Rocky Mountains—or on California’s Gavilan Peak, today’s Fremont Peak, near Monterey—to defy Mexican authorities.
Millions daily echo his words of wonder from July 1, 1846, when he entered San Francisco Bay. The “harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn,” Frémont wrote in his Geographical Memoir, hailing nature’s “Golden Gate.”
Frémont helped secure American control of California during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846 and the Mexican American War of 1848. He prospered from the estate he owned, Rancho Las Mariposas. When a middleman first purchased it for him from a defeated Mexican governor, Frémont feared the land was useless. The discovery of gold changed Frémont’s analysis—and finances, at least temporarily.
By this time, Frémont had survived his first major career catastrophe. After winning a power struggle to become military governor in California, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny had Frémont court martialed for mutiny. Jesse Benton Frémont lobbied President James Knox Polk, who considered Frémont “greatly in the wrong.” Trying to mollify Senator Benton who was defending his son-in-law, Polk ordered Frémont to return to his regiment, and planned to give him clemency. Instead, Frémont resigned from the army. Benton never forgave Polk.
Neither did Frémont. Disgusted by slavery and buoyed by fame, the 43-year-old Frémont became the new, antislavery, Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856.
“That must be a very dark and squat log cabin into which the fame of Colonel Frémont has not penetrated ere this,” the anti-slavery editor Horace Greeley observed. Jesse Frémont made political history as an electoral asset, inspiring a campaign slogan: “Frémont and Jessie too.”
Frémont and the Know Nothing candidate former President Millard Fillmore together earned more than 400,000 votes than the winner, James Buchanan. An Illinois Republican, Abraham Lincoln celebrated this anti-slavery majority, writing that “if these factions” could unite, they would win.
In 1860 Lincoln won, the union dissolved, and the new president turned to the war veteran. But when Frémont, heading the Military Department of the West, declared martial law in Missouri, the president objected. The Frémont proclamation of August 30, 1861 vowed to seize the property of any rebels—including freeing their slaves. Lincoln, trying to keep slave states in the union, warned the move “will alarm our Southern Union friends and turn them against us.”
Jesse Benton Frémont visited Washington and confronted a hostile president, who dismissed her, saying “You are quite a female politician.” Lincoln explained that this was “a war for a great national idea, the Union, and… General Frémont should not have dragged the Negro into it.” Lincoln called Frémont’s move “simply dictatorship,” assuming “the general may do anything” he pleases.”
Abolitionists, of course, supported Frémont. Even Lincoln’s former law partner William Herndon feared Lincoln was indulging the rebels, wondering, “Does he suppose he can crush—squelch out this huge rebellion by pop guns filled with rose water?”
Realizing he needed a different excuse for firing Frémont, Lincoln asked allies in Missouri to find Frémont incompetent.
“His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with,” one reported. Others gossiped about an opium addiction, a passive leader who was often stupefied.
Frémont gets credit for promoting one particular general… Ulysses S. Grant. Frémont tried running again for the Republican nomination in 1864 and served as Arizona’s governor from 1878 to 1881, but he never again enjoyed any political influence.
After the Civil War, Frémont cashed in. And, like so many others in Gilded Age America, he lost his shirt when the economy tanked. Jay Cooke—the brigand who crashed America’s economy in 1873—called Frémont “entirely unreliable in money matters.” That’s like being called dishonest by Bernie Madoff.
Lizzie Blair of the prominent Blair family, and other friends had “pity,” for Jesse, who “has run after her unhappy husband, struggling to protect him against himself & yet [he] has such a stormy temper she is as unfit to control him as herself.”
Increasingly, they relied on her writings for income. Suffering from his failures, she celebrated his successes so successfully, that today, we just remember his successes. Then, as now, pioneering without salesmanship, is like navigating without a map: it’s doable, but much harder to reach your destination.