Some years ago, my wife and I were taking our high-school-age son on a tour of West Coast colleges where he might want to apply if he did not stay in the East. On one particular day the three of us were touring Stanford, which my wife and I both attended. Because our son had grown up in Massachusetts, his feelings toward Stanford were mixed. He knew in principle that it was intellectually first-rate, and he was swept away by the beauty, but he had doubts. At one point he said, “Dad, you know what they call Stanford back East: Ivy League Lite.” Most Californians have encountered a sentiment of this type. Even though, in most years, California ranks, all by itself, as the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, there is a belief in many circles that such an achievement can’t be real. The state isn’t solid enough, outsiders contend. And there is no doubt that many Californians have an airy quality, even though they may achieve a great deal. You can see the pattern, for example, in politics, by comparing Jerry Brown and Chris Christie, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, Barbara Boxer and Barbara Mikulski, or Antonio Villaraigosa and Ted Cruz. It is easy to spot the Californians. The California Lightweight does exist. And the causes go all the way back to the origins of the state. The Gold Rush stimulated people to act quickly, with bursts of energy, and not to wait for details to be worked out. The benign climate created a habit of not believing in obstacles. The mystique of being in the Far West and the interaction of many cultures promoted feelings of vision and possibility. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, these elements combined to make California a place of rapid, substantial achievement. But they could also lead to success mixed with failure.
One of the people who illustrates the pattern is John Charles Fremont (1813-1890), the man who was, in many ways, the founder of the state of California. He was a person of enormous talent and energy and vision. He saw opportunities and seized them. But he found it difficult to commit to just one project and moved, at times almost erratically, from one object of focus to another. Imagery sometimes interested him more than substance. He did not see great value in analyzing things to the second or third level. He could be sloppy about details, and for this reason he needed perceptive advisers. In his life story, one can see the California Lightweight, as a type, beginning to crystallize more than 150 years ago Fremont was born in Savannah, Georgia. In the 1830s he gained experience as a surveyor, working to map railway routes in South Carolina and on an Army survey in Appalachia related to the transfer of Cherokee lands. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1838 and served for five years in the Topographical Corps, working under the great scientist and explorer Joseph Nicolas Nicollet on mapping the upper Mississippi River and areas around the Missouri River. Fremont went with Nicollet to Washington DC to report on activities and build support for further explorations.
Here Fremont made powerful friends including Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a leading advocate of westward expansion. In 1841 Fremont and the Senator’s daughter Jessie were married. In 1842 Fremont led an expedition that followed the Oregon Trail to the Rockies. In 1843 he was a key member of a government expedition, ordered by Congress and facilitated by Senator Benton, to go further west and explore the Oregon country and gather information that would supplement the U.S. naval expedition already in progress on the upper Pacific coast of North America. After collecting information in Oregon, and in keeping with his romantic character and Senator Benton’s belief in the importance of American expansion, Fremont decided to take his expedition south. He journeyed to Nevada, where he named the Great Basin, Pyramid Lake and Carson River. In February 1844, he braved heavy snowfalls to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains to visit John Sutter at his fort near Sacramento. Fremont concluded that Mexican rule over California was weak. He proceeded south through California and then with help from guides made his way to Bent’s Fort in Colorado, after which he returned to the east. Fremont’s wife Jessie was an excellent writer with an acute awareness of the value and means of publicity. With her considerable help Fremont described his travels in his Report of the Exploring Expedition to Oregon and North California (1845). The report was sponsored by the Senate to add to the nation’s fund of information about geology, plant life, and exact determinations of longitude and latitude in the West. But the report was written in a much more exciting style than most such documents and tapped into the nation’s intense enthusiasm for acquiring new territory; it spoke to the feeling of Manifest Destiny that was strong in the United States by that time. The Senate was sufficiently excited by the report to publish 10,000 copies. Parts of the document were reprinted in many U.S. newspapers and it prompted many approving articles.
Using public opinion as a catapult, Sen. Benton engineered another expedition to be led by his son-in-law (1845-1846). This time Fremont led an armed party of 60 through the central Rocky Mountains, the area of the Great Salt Lake, and part of the Sierras. Reaching Nevada in 1845, Fremont named the Humboldt River, honoring the great German scientist who, earlier in the century, had explored many areas of South America. In the winter of 1845 Fremont made a dramatic crossing of the Sierras. He proceeded on to Monterey during January-March 1846 and had extensive discussions there with the American Consul. The Mexicans were suspicious of Fremont’s intentions and ordered him out of their territory. In a gesture of defiance, Fremont raised the American flag at Gabilan (later named Fremont) Peak near Monterey and then went north to Klamath, Oregon. There he met with U.S. Army agents; it has been speculated that in Oregon he received a secret message from Sen. Benton advising him to act aggressively. In any case, Fremont then journeyed south again to Sutter’s Fort, raised a volunteer force of Americans, captured Sonoma in an operation dubbed the Bear Flag Revolt, and planned additional conquests.
At this time, in 1846, the U.S.-Mexican War began. Commodore Stockton commissioned Fremont as a Major and directed him to attack areas to the south. With a volunteer force Fremont skirmished against Mexican forces in and around San Diego and Santa Barbara. The Mexican Governor, Andres Pico, surrendered to Fremont at Cahuenga near Los Angeles.
Immediately thereafter Stockton named Fremont military governor of California. But Fremont soon came into conflict with General Stephen Kearny, who had been marching across the Southwest to California and had conflicting orders from Washington DC about organizing a government. After serving as governor from January 19 to March 1, Fremont was removed from the office by Kearny and charged with mutiny. At a court-martial in Washington DC he was found guilty. Although President Polk pardoned him he resigned from the army. There was some possibility that the court-martial proceedings would bring notoriety. But the press, predisposed to like Fremont, pronounced the proceedings boring and directed their attention to covering the conclusion of the Mexican War and the treaty with Mexico. By now there were many articles in the newspapers praising Fremont’s achievements as an explorer. For example, the Southern Literary Messenger declared, “the name of Fremont is immortalized among the great travelers and explorers.” The press published exciting accounts of his exploits in California and voiced admiration for the flair which he showed during the proceedings in Washington DC. To take advantage of the attention, Fremont wrote a Geographical Memoir upon Upper California (1848), which concisely narrated the story of his expedition of 1845-46. And in 1848-49 Fremont led a private expedition to explore possible railroad routes to California. He happened to be in California when gold was discovered. The gold rush benefitted him greatly. Earlier, with help from friends in California, Fremont had purchased a large parcel of land in the Mariposa area west of Yosemite. When extensive deposits of gold were discovered there, Fremont became rich. Soon after California became a U.S. state in 1850, Fremont was named U.S. Senator for California, serving the short term of September 1850-March 1851. Thereafter he traveled to Europe. But in July 1853 newspapers reported excitedly that Fremont had returned from England with the best scientific and surveying instruments that money could buy and that his aim was to establish the superiority of a railroad line crossing the Rockies to California at around the thirty-eighth parallel. The expedition Fremont formed for this purpose lasted from 1853 to 1854 and had 22 members, including a daguerrotypist, making Fremont the first person ever to include an official photographer in an exploring party. Back in New York in 1854 after the expedition, Fremont published a long letter in the press enumerating the advantages of the route the expedition had mapped. Fremont planned to follow up with more publicity, but his attention was soon diverted when prominent newspaper publishers and professional political organizers urged him to run for the Presidency as the candidate for the new anti-slavery Republican Party in the campaign of 1856.
Fremont was already in some ways a legendary figure by the time he was chosen to be the Republican candidate. The campaign accelerated the process, as Republican Party publicity projected an image of Fremont that was in some ways foreign to his conception of himself. The party all but ignored Fremont’s achievements as a scientific explorer and geographer and emphasized his image as “Pathfinder.” Fremont did not totally oppose use of this portrayal but it can be said that he lost control of it. Even his wife went along with the party strategy somewhat. With assistance from Jessie, John Bigelow quickly wrote a campaign biography priced at one dollar that enjoyed large sales. Charles Wentworth Upham also published a biography. Popular songs appeared. Horace Greeley and the New York Tribune circulated a biography of Fremont in pamphlet form. Large portraits of Fremont, lithographed in New York and priced at a dollar each, appeared in many cities at campaign offices and in shop windows. John Greenleaf Whittier composed a poem in tribute to Fremont, “The Path of the Sierras,” saying that Fremont could lead the nation into the Promised Land. In the North, women and members of the Protestant clergy declared their support for Fremont in large numbers. Nearly all of these supporters stayed with Fremont when various negative accusations directed at him by the opposition were making their way around the country. In California, dozens of “Bear Clubs” formed in support of Fremont, and some six or seven California newspapers defended him.
There were torchlight parades and mass meetings with speakers who resembled religious revivalists. The campaign dwelt upon slogans as much as issues. Fremont had accomplished an enormous amount as an explorer, a scientist and a military leader; and he had previously exploited press coverage. But he found the world of full-scale campaign politics bewildering. He was particularly adrift when forced to deal with smears directed at him during the campaign: for example, that he had made false claims about several key achievements, that he was secretly a Catholic, and that he was a drunkard. His party’s inability to squelch such attacks was one factor in his loss to Buchanan. Other factors included the strong anti-slavery position taken by the Republicans and the fact that a third candidate, Fillmore, drew votes. After losing the election Fremont returned to California and developed his Mariposa holdings. At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln put Fremont in charge of the Department of the West, with headquarters in St. Louis. While in that position Fremont made the mistake of unilaterally freeing the slaves of Missouri, which aroused great local anger and prompted Lincoln to condemn him publicly and reassign him to campaigns in Virginia, where he was defeated by Gen. Stonewall Jackson. After the Civil War Fremont engaged in several unsound business projects and lost both his Mariposa grant and his wealth. In 1864 there was interest in some circles of the Republican Party and the press in making Fremont the nominee to run for President instead of Lincoln. But this movement did not gain broad support, and thereafter Fremont was not a major subject of newspaper attention as a figure directly involved in political or military action. But he did get mention from time to time as news of his business difficulties surfaced. And there was extensive attention as a result of writings in which Jessie took the initiative and to which Fremont was a large contributor: numerous articles, essays and stories under Jessie’s name from 1875 to 1890, including children’s stories as well as magazine articles that were republished in book form as A Year of American Travel, about California and Panama during the Gold Rush period, Far West Sketches, dealing with life at Mariposa, and Souvenirs of My Time (1887). In 1886, inspired by the earlier appearance of Grant’s memoirs, Fremont wrote a long autobiographical work, the first volume of which was published in 1886 as Memoirs of My Life: A Retrospect of Fifty Years. But the first volume was a commercial failure and the second was never published.
Fremont served as territorial governor of Arizona in the years 1878-83 and joined in promotional schemes for several western railroad ventures. He was not much in the public eye except for the extensive reporting on his death in 1890 and the many tributes that appeared in print and elsewhere at that time. Jessie Benton Fremont spent her widowed years in Los Angeles and died there in 1892.
A strong case can be made that John Charles Fremont was the first California Lightweight. He virtually founded the state of California. He was a brave and skillful explorer. He was the first Presidential candidate of the Republican Party. He had vision and an eye for opportunity and he acted with intense energy whenever the main chance came his way. But the world was sometimes more complicated than he realized.
There are many biographies of Fremont. In my opinion, the best is Allan Nevins, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West (1928).