The Remarkable Life of Jessie Benton Frémont

A century and a half ago, a pioneering woman redefined the role of the political spouse.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Frederick Hill Meserve Collection

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.

It was not so in earlier times. It’s true that political wives have always been deeply involved in their husbands’ work behind the scenes, and some have also enjoyed celebrity status, admired or scrutinized for their style. But in the days before women gained the right to vote in 1920, spouses were almost never part of the raucous public debate of a presidential campaign—almost never, that is, except for Jessie Benton Frémont. It is revealing that she rose to prominence in the manner of a modern spouse, because she did so during a time of disorienting social change that prefigured our own. What was true in her era is true now: When Americans try to picture their hope for social change—or their fear of it—what many see is the shape of a woman.

The 1856 election came less than five years before the Civil War. The nation was divided between southern states that embraced slavery, and northern states that had gradually abolished it. The Republican Party, founded to oppose slavery’s expansion, nominated one of the most admired men in America. Jessie’s husband was a former Army officer who led dangerous expeditions to make maps of the American West, and played a role in seizing California from Mexico. John’s work was considered so vital to the advance of civilization that, in 1850, a magazine named him one of the world’s three most important historical figures since Jesus Christ. (The other two were Christopher Columbus and George Washington.) But for all his enterprise and talent, he likely would not have risen to such fame without his marriage to Jessie. “I thought as many others did,” said one of their critics, “that Jessie Benton Frémont was the better man of the two.”

Jessie, the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, grew up aspiring to fill roles that were restricted to men. Her father, who had been hoping for a son, gave her a variation of his own father’s name. When she was small he encouraged her education, and let her tag along to the Capitol and the president’s house. She so loved being in “the place a son would have had” that when she reached her teen years, she cut her hair short and told her father she wanted to spend her life as his aide. The haircut was a step too far for her father, who said it was time for her to act like a woman. Denied a chance to become his assistant, she married a man who assisted him—eloping at age 17 with John Frémont, who was a useful instrument as the senator encouraged westward expansion.

After their marriage, in 1841, John’s career soared. Having grown up among Washington’s elites, Jessie provided her previously unknown husband with entrée to the highest levels of the government and media. She served him as secretary, editor, writing partner, and occasional ghostwriter, helping him to compose reports of his adventures, which were published as popular books. She amplified his talent for self-promotion, working with news editors to publicize his journeys. She became his political adviser. She attracted talented young men to his circle, promoted friends, and lashed out at enemies. While it was not unusual for women in Washington to quietly wield influence, she developed a public profile that was unusual. Newspapers (whose editors she knew well) published her letters defending her husband, praised her ability to converse with diplomats in several languages, and noted her presence at some of her father’s official meetings.

She was pushing the boundaries of women’s assigned roles just as women were beginning to demand a larger place in national life. Women were holding meetings calling for voting rights—the Seneca Falls convention, which declared that “all men and women are created equal,” was in 1848. Women also joined the movement against slavery. Lydia Maria Child, whose many writings included the poem “Over the River and Through the Wood,” edited an antislavery newspaper, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, became a huge best seller. The Republican Party captured the energy of such women—and when John was nominated, Jessie became their symbol. Though she came from a slave-owning Virginia family, she made it known that her mother had always opposed slavery, freeing slaves she inherited and passing on her views to Jessie.

Republican managers and editors found Jessie especially useful because James Buchanan, the Democratic nominee, was a bachelor who had no one comparable. An editorial cartoon presented two pictures side by side: one, labeled “Young America,” showed John standing beside his shapely wife with a rifle hanging on the wall; the other, labeled “Old Fogyism,” showed Buchanan eating soup in his bedroom alone. In late June, the New York Evening Mirror described the latest Republican gathering:

“GIVE ’EM JESSIE.”– At an impromptu gathering of Fremonters up town, the other evening, an enthusiastic advocate of the Rocky Mountain candidate put it to the crowd whether it would not be better to send a man to the White House who had completed his humanities by marrying an accomplished woman, than to send there such a rusty old bachelor as Buchanan … A gentleman present, who remembered the maiden name of Mrs. Fremont (Jessie Benton), shouted “WE’LL GIVE ’EM JESSIE!”

“Give ’em Jesse” was an old-fashioned way to say something like “Give ’em hell.”

The felicitous double entendre only needs to be published to become the watchword of the campaign, and the Mirror takes the liberty of adding, that if the gallantry of the country demanded a Queen at the head of the nation, the lovely lady of the Republican nominee would command the universal suffrages of the people.

Republicans distributed songbooks, offering new lyrics to popular melodies, which Frémont fans could sing at home or at campaign rallies. Groups of women known as “Jessie Circles” were among those who sang. “Give ’Em Jessie” was sung to the refrain of “Yankee Doodle,” using Buchanan’s nickname, Old Buck:

Fire away, my gallant lads

And Freedom’s sons will bless ye,

And if old Buck don’t clear the track

Fremont will “give him Jessie.”

People read that Jessie herself “gave them Jessie.” Newspapers circulated a story in which Jessie, months before the presidential nomination, fell into an argument with a prominent Boston man she encountered on a train. As the cars rattled between Washington and Baltimore, the Bostonian expressed surprise that a “Southern lady” would support “demagogues” opposed to the South’s “institutions,” which was a euphemism for slavery. Jessie replied that she was surprised that a northern man was so deferential to those institutions. One of the papers that reprinted this story was run by Frederick Douglass, who had long taken an interest in women’s activism and seemed intrigued by both Frémonts. Douglass, an escaped slave and antislavery orator, had endorsed the third-party presidential campaign of a radical abolitionist, but soon switched his support to the Frémont campaign.

A newspaper dispatch from Buffalo, New York, in July reported “a new feature in political gatherings.” A rally for Frémont and William Dayton, his running mate, included “the presence of some 400 ladies, seats having been reserved. The ladies here ‘go in’ for Fremont and ‘our Jessie.’” In Indiana, the newspapers said, a young woman identified as Miss Carrie Filkins addressed crowds at Republican events; she “attended all the great mass meetings held in that State,” raised her voice to “thousands assembled on the Tippecanoe battle ground,” and then delivered another speech at a Frémont meeting in Dayton, Ohio.

Many voters were uncomfortable with Jessie playing such a prominent role. Their contemporary who complimented her as “the better man of the two” was saying this in order to diminish her husband, a “very nice little gentleman” overshadowed by a woman. And Democrats understood that they could undermine both Frémonts by painting Jessie as an agent of radical change. Some Democratic papers printed a slyly suggestive article about a “Jessie Circle” in New York City, which was alleged to consist of “the female friends and admirers of Mrs. Jessie Fremont.” It was said to be a “progressive” group abandoning traditional female roles: “It is now admitted that the ‘home circle’ is not a proper place for our American ladies … domestic duties are unworthy of their attention; and teething children, and invalid husbands, are permitted to nurse themselves, while wives and daughters are fired with an ardent love of country, don their bonnets and calico, and meet in ‘Jessie Circles’ to regulate the affairs of the nation.”

The target of these attacks did not subscribe to any such beliefs. Jessie had played no special role in the movement for women’s rights. She had not openly questioned gender roles since she cut her hair as a teenager, and as an adult she managed an adventurous and unusual life without throwing off her traditional positions as wife and mother. Her antislavery position was not radical, either: Republicans wanted to stop the spread of slavery but promised to leave it alone in the states where it existed. What made it easy to paint Jessie as extremist was not her views, but her gender.

Because there were no public-opinion polls, there is no way to tell whether Jessie Frémont’s prominence helped or hurt her husband’s campaign. What is known is that he lost. Forced to do without a single vote from the slave-owning South, he needed to win nearly all the states in the more populous North, and despite an impressive showing, he fell short. James Buchanan took office in March 1857, embarking on a four-year term that marked him, in the view of many historians, as the worst president in American history.

Their critics celebrated John’s election loss as a setback for both Frémonts. At Princeton University, which enrolled many students from the South, a newspaper reported that triumphant students “marched around the town in procession” while “bearing a black coffin,” which was said to hold the body of John C. Frémont. One of the students, presumably a man, donned “black bonnets and dress, riding on a little Canadian stallion, representing Fremont’s widow, the now disconsolate Jessie.” Yet even in defeat, Jessie inspired other women. Shortly after the election, a women’s-rights convention came to order in New York. Lucy Stone, the convention president, declared that it could not be long before women received the right to vote, now that “women were urged to attend political meetings, and a woman’s name was made one of the rallying cries of the party of progress.” We now know that Stone was mistaken. Black men would have their right to vote confirmed within a decade; women would have to wait another 64 years.

John Charles Frémont’s star gradually faded in later years, though his wife never stopped supporting him. When the Civil War came in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed John as a general based in Missouri. John soon clashed with the commander in chief, issuing an order that freed some Missouri slaves before Lincoln was ready to do so. Refusing Lincoln’s request to modify the order, he instead sent his closest adviser to confer with the president: Jessie boarded an eastbound train to Washington. Standing face to face with the towering president, she tried to argue that John’s emancipation order was helpful in Missouri and would play well in Europe, too. “You are quite a female politician,” Lincoln replied. Jessie said afterward, “I felt the sneering tone and saw there was a foregone decision against all listening.” Lincoln soon relieved General Frémont of his command. He would not allow a general to make political decisions that belonged to him as the government’s civilian leader.

Eventually, Jessie outshone her husband. Having so often assisted his writing, she became an author under her own name, producing a book that defended his Civil War conduct. In later years, she helped to support them by writing books and articles that reflected on their earlier lives. They needed the money, because John lost his fortune through failed railroad investments in the 1870s. He showed such bad judgment during the war and afterward that Republicans who once regarded him as a hero decided they were lucky he was never president—though their estimation of Jessie never changed. “It was no great disappointment,” a newspaper writer said in 1880, that John was not elected, “but I think that we all regret that his wife should never have been Mrs. President.” The writer added that “she is in a high sense a masculine woman. Her powers are those we call masculine, as representing greater strength. If she had the fortune to be born a man, she would beyond doubt have achieved a place among the controlling spirits of this country from which the limitations of her sex have debarred her.”

By labeling her strength “masculine,” the writer seems to have missed his own meaning. If Jessie had the same “powers” as a man, then her sex was no limitation. Her only restrictions were arbitrary rules imposed by society. One hundred sixty-four years after her presidential campaign, many of those restrictions have been torn down—but modern political spouses face the same democratic challenges that Jessie confronted. When they pursue their ambitions in public, they force the rest of us to consider our own biases and beliefs.