John C. Fremont led a life of considerable achievement and seemed to many of his contemporaries a man of destiny. However, in the Civil War his destiny eluded him. An engineering officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers, his personal charm led to his marriage in 1841 to Jesse Benton, a woman of considerable ambition and the daughter of the legendary Senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Bent. Now politically well connected, Benton achieved fame and the title The Pathfinder, by leading settlers along with scout Kit Carson over the Oregon Trail. In the 1830’s Fremont had taken part in various topographical mapping expeditions into the West and this served him in good stead in determining the best routes for the pioneers. His exploits were steadily followed in the eastern papers, and Fremont became a national celebrity. During the Mexican War, Fremont played a major role in the conquest of California, although he displayed much energy but little military skill. After the war he served as military governor for California, and, after California was admitted to the Union, Fremont served briefly as a US Senator for the state.
Although he was of Southern birth, Fremont was an ardent foe of slavery and became the first Republican candidate for President in 1856. Obtaining a third of the vote, and 114 electoral votes, Fremont proved that the new Republican party was a serious contender in national politics. His electoral slogan of “Free Men! Free Soil! Fremont!”, resounded throughout the North, Fremont winning all of the Northern states except Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Indiana, demonstrating that if the North was unified, it could elect a President. Fremont suffered in the election by false allegations that his father was a French aristocrat and that Fremont was a Catholic. (Fremont’s father was a middle class Frenchman who fought for the Royalists in France and who immigrated to America. Fremont was an Episcopalian.) The Democrats also made hay of the fact that Fremont had been born out of wedlock, and that at the time they started their romance, his mother had been married to a man not his father. Salacious political gossip is not an invention of the Twenty-First century.