Jessie Benton Frémont was a predecessor of the modern political spouse. More than a century and a half ago, she walked into the center of a bitter presidential campaign—cheered by crowds, mocked by critics, held up as a symbol of what was right and wrong with America.
Her appeal was apparent from the moment her husband was nominated for president in 1856. When John Charles Frémont became the first-ever presidential nominee of the newly founded Republican Party, Republicans organized a torchlight procession to the Frémont house in New York City. Thousands of men elbowed for space as they shouted for their candidate to emerge onto his iron balcony. The nominee stepped out and gave a short speech, but after he withdrew, the crowd wanted more. “Mrs. Frémont!” someone cried, then others took up the refrain. “Madam Frémont! Jessie! Jessie! Give us Jessie!”
Nothing quite like this had happened before. “For a lady to make her appearance before a political crowd like this is an innovation,” observed a young man in the crowd. Disapproving, another man beside him tried to hush the calls for Jessie, but his was a lonely voice as many shouted louder. A man appeared on the balcony and tried to explain why Jessie should not come out: “Such occasions as this are apt to disconcert ladies,” he called down, but the crowd refused to leave. At last, to “a universal shout,” Jessie appeared on the balcony. “The crowd are crazy with enthusiasm,” noted the young man below. “They sway to and fro. They are bareheaded almost to a man, cheering with hats in hand in the air.” As Jessie acknowledged the men in the torchlight, the Republicans beneath her roared so loudly that it seemed all their previous cheers for John had been “a mere practice to train their voices” for her.
Looking back from our own time, it would be easy to miss how remarkable this moment was. We live in the era of Hillary Clinton, who first came to public notice as the wife of a rising Arkansas politician. Two of her successors as first lady have stirred equally fierce emotions—the first black first lady, caricatured as an advocate of the nanny state, and an immigrant first lady, married to a man determined to restrict immigration. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwillingly, spouses personify national debates about race and gender roles. There is no reason to think this trend will stop soon, considering that the 2020 election could bring a variety of candidates’ spouses to greater fame, among them Bruce Mann and Chasten Buttigieg.