Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Passion and Principle or Eyes off the Prize

Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Fremont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics, and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America

Author: Sally Denton

She was the daughter of powerful Missouri politician Thomas Hart Benton and was a savvy political operator who played confidante and advisor to the inner circle of the highest political powers in the country. He was a key figure in western exploration and California’s first senator, and became the first presidential candidate for the Republican Party—and the first candidate to challenge slavery. Both shaped their times and were far ahead of it, but most extraordinarily their story has never fully been told. Thanks in part to a deep-seated family quarrel between Jessie’s father and the couple, John and Jessie were eclipsed and opposed by some of the most mythic characters of their era, not least Abraham Lincoln. Award-winning historian Sally Denton restores the reputations of John and Jessie and places them where they belong—at the center of our country’s history.

The New York Times - Mimi Swartz

Passion and Principle really belongs to Jessie — she was the better writer and had profoundly superior social skills — and Denton handily makes the case for elevating the couple's stature in the history books. But the FrŠ¹monts' self-righteousness, if played down by the author, serves as a cautionary and often humorous subtext. Like so many progressives, the FrŠ¹monts were mostly right, but couldn't help reminding everyone else of that fact, and, ultimately, it did them in. Even back then, nobody liked an "I told you so."

Publishers Weekly

Denton (American Massacre) produces an intriguing take on the life and times of John C. Fremont (1813-1890), explorer of the West, traveling partner of Kit Carson, California senator, unyielding abolitionist and the Republican Party's first presidential candidate (he lost the 1856 election to James Buchanan). This is not a conventional political biography but a portrait of the five-decade-long marriage between Fremont and Jessie, a daughter of Missouri Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton, set against the tumultuous background of 19th-century America. It is certainly the first narrative in which Jessie Fremont is accorded equal weight, and is by far the most sympathetic-not just to her, but also to him. John, all too often depicted as a semicompetent and fraudulent megalomaniac, emerges as an immensely talented explorer, overtrusting soul and introverted scientist. Jessie's historical caricature as a hysterical shrew and control freak is sensitively tempered by Denton into a complex amalgam of indomitability and idealism constrained by her times into playing second fiddle. Jessie's accomplishments, writes Denton, "were attained not through John as her surrogate, but with John as her partner." As Denton shows, Bill and Hillary are not the first American power couple. 16 pages of b&w illus. (May) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Douglas King - Library Journal

Denton (Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman's Passage in the American West) tackles the story of 19th-century explorer, Civil War Union general, and (in 1856) inaugural Republican presidential nominee John Frémont and his politically influential wife, Jessie Benton Frémont. She relies heavily on primary sources such as letters, diary entries, and official government documents to untangle the convoluted and widely misperceived political careers and personal lives of her subjects. Denton's research strives to explain Jessie's role in her husband's controversial attempts to abolish slavery, and she convincingly refutes popular historiography's perception of John as fortuitously marrying into a politically powerful family and coasting on his wife's talent. The Frémonts' story stretches from the advent of Manifest Destiny through the Civil War, and Denton tells the tale well, in dense but always readable detail. This original and engaging work is sure to be a boon to historians studying Old West exploration or political entanglements and military actions leading up to the Civil War. Highly recommended for all academic and large public libraries.

Kirkus Reviews

Western historian Denton (Faith and Betrayal, 2005, etc.) offers a revisionist treatment of the fearless Pathfinder and his talented, ambitious wife. History has unfairly maligned John and Jessie Fremont, the author argues. Both were attractive, charismatic figures: bright, highly educated and articulate. The "passion" of the title alludes to the Fremonts' very affectionate 50-year marriage and to their commitment to various social and political causes, including abolition. The "principle" lies in their refusal to compromise those core convictions, even when wealth and political power hung in the balance. Denton begins with their initial meeting, described in swooning phrases that would make an apt additional verse to "Some Enchanted Evening." Indeed, as she retreats in time to summarize her principals' pre-swoon biographies, the author's florid prose seems overly colored by the 19th-century sources she consulted (from which she might profitably have ascertained the correct usage of words like "fulsome" and "sojourn"). Denton also repeatedly and unnecessarily quotes from other biographers and historians, sometimes on simple matters of fact. The facts themselves are intriguing. John, the offspring of a dashing French refugee and a Virginia woman who may not have been divorced from her first husband, was 11 years older than Jessie when their son was born in 1813. Jessie was the daughter of aristocratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who disapproved so strongly of her suitor that they wed secretly. Together or apart-they were separated for long periods-the Fremonts made a formidable team. They were ambitious, cultivating relationships with some of the most celebrated political and culturalfigures of the century. (They once summered with Longfellow and the Whittiers.) He trusted her implicitly and sent her on missions of enormous significance. They made and lost fortunes in gold-mining and railroad speculation-and very nearly won the White House in 1856, when John was the newly formed Republican Party's first presidential candidate. The Fremonts' story remains compelling, even when manhandled by a maladroit biographer.

New interesting textbook: Dining by Design or Entertaining for Wimps

Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955

Author: Carol Anderson

As World War II drew to a close and the world awakened to the horrors wrought by white supremacists in Nazi Germany, the NAACP and African-American leaders sensed an opportunity to launch an offensive against the conditions of segregation and inequality in the United States. The "prize" they sought was not civil rights, but human rights. Only the human rights lexicon, shaped by the Holocaust and articulated by the United Nations, contained the language and the moral power to address not only the political and legal inequality but also the education, health care, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community. The NAACP understood this and wielded its influence and resources to take its human rights agenda before the United Nations. But the onset of the Cold War and rising anti-communism allowed powerful southerners to cast those rights as Soviet-inspired and a threat to the American "ways of life." Enemies and friends excoriated the movement, and the NAACP retreated to a narrow civil rights agenda that was easier to maintain politically. Thus the Civil Rights Movement was launched with neither the language nor the mission it needed to truly achieve black equality. Carol Anderson is the recipient of major grants from the Ford Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, and numerous awards for excellence in teaching. Her scholarly interests are 20th century American, African-American, and diplomatic history, and the impact of the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy on the struggle for black equality in particular.Her publications include "From Hope to Disillusion published in Diplomatic History and reprinted in The African-American Voice in U.S.Foreign Policy.

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