California, John Charles Fremont, United States discussed on 1947: The Meet the Press Podcast
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And I think it's no coincidence that our politics are getting more tribal. Join me for. Why is this happening? New episodes every Tuesday. Wherever you get your podcasts joining me now is Steve? INSKEEP is a real treat for me host of NPR's morning edition. His latest book is called Imperfect Union. How Jesse and John Fremont map the west best invented celebrity and helped cause the civil war? It's newly out this week. It has some interesting historical parallels today. And I'll just be honest Steve. I'm in the middle reading about Leland Leland Stanford is so it really scratched my h. Let's graphic timing. I just I felt a dearth of lack of knowledge of the American West. And now I feel like between the book I'm meaning on Stanford in this. I am in much better shape. A treat for me to be here. By the way chuck And Yeah Leland Stanford this guy. What was founder of California founder of the Central Pacific? Civic Railroad Governor of California all these important things John Charles Fremont one of the main characters of this book is also ineffective founder of California. He's he's the guy who claimed credit it's a little more complicated reality. But claimed credit conqueror of California do we also because he was the first nominee for president of a fledgling third party called the Republican Lucan Party. Yeah do economists founder of the Republican Party or not I would. I would go there but I would be careful about it. Because he someone they reached out and grabbed as a a symbol of their movement. He had not been. This is a party that was founded to oppose the spread of slavery. He'd not been a major anti-slavery thinker he'd not been a major anti anti slavery activists in fact he had to go and Polish his anti slavery. Credentials a little bit to fit the moment but he was. Somebody was considered this great national hero of the Mexican war of the Mexican war and of the exploration of the West and was considered to be this just really brave guy guy with great fortitude and judgment who would bring the different parts of the coalition Together. Help bring people mean the best part that I like about reading any the the best books in yours. Does this really well about reading any about anybody. That's more than one hundred years old is setting the scene. Yeah of America. What's it like to be there? It's so remarkable to me to remind people that it is only only been. It's been less than two hundred years that the West essentially became America. Yes all right this was loosely a Mexican territory but did they fully. Nobody really controlled. It was territory. Yes this belong to native peoples. We're we're talking here about what what. The Mexicans called Alta California which was actually California Nevada Arizona parts of some other states and enormous an empire of itself and their various native nations out there. And there's really a few thousand I think maybe the number was eight thousand Mexican colonists who had taken over little parts of it and we're trying to control it and the United States understood how loosely it was held and reached out to grab it. We had three competing things happening. All at the same time. Right there was. There was always a movement in the country of manifest any. Yes then there was the discovery of gold and it seemed to accelerate everything and when does it accelerate Fremont it made him rich. This is a guy who with the aid of his wife is a huge part of the story. As I'm sure we'll discuss US Went to Mexican controlled. California began the process of taking it over. Just as the Mexican war was beginning The war between which between the United States and Mexico is beginning. He didn't even know it at the time. Because of bad communications he became this huge hero. He also obtained real estate as Congress tend to do and honoring wondering land. Somehow they end up owning some of the land and then how do they decide that they own the land clubbing. I love as multiple people would have claims on these pieces of land. It was totally true. And in this case you had a Mexican former governor who realized his side was on the way out and he had a somewhat dubious claim to a vague vague but immense chunk of California something larger than the island of Manhattan and he sold it to John Fremont for three thousand dollars and then in eighteen forty nine Fremont allowed some Mexican migrants to go dig for gold on the land because the gold rush had begun and they made him fantastically tactically wealthy without him having to do very much of anything and that became yet another part of the fame of this incredibly famous person that he was a hero. Ro He was here. ROIC that had such great fortitude that he was involved in the westward expansion of the country and he was also involved in the wealth of the country and got some of it for himself. So so in a setting up here. Because you explain how it happened. How why why did he become the celebrity? There's plenty of people who could have been celebrity by. That's totally in California in that period of time. Why damn that's totally true? There were a lot of people who were involved in the exploration of the West and we should be clear what we mean by that the white expiration of the West or the American. If you WANNA say man okay I sure as opposed to that the natives and other people who were there Mexican certainly explored it as well certainly true. In fact a lot of the West West was known but it had not been codified. It had not been as well mapped as it could have been and it needed to be promoted and this is the thing that is really modern about this story. Chuck to me one of the things. John Charles Fremont was acting at the behest of his father-in-law a powerful senator who wanted to take over the west who wanted to take over Oregon which was disputed territory with Britain and he believed that the way that Americans took over territory was by settling it not by seizing it in a war necessarily just by putting people there until it was in the Middle East that I've heard people people bring up this this This analogy Quite a lot and and that's you can certainly have a big argument about that. I will refrain for the moment but in any case people do try had to make that comparison. And this is what Thomas Hart Benton. The senator believed about Oregon and he understood that the way to get people to settle it was to promote the idea. Jeff settling it and so he got his son in law who was an army officer assigned to two missions along the Oregon trail to map it so that it was better understood To write these reports which became like guides on how to settle in the West and they were also really evocatively written really powerfully written with beautiful full descriptions and they would be excerpted all over the country newspapers and published as popular books and he became in effect a best selling writer after two. Who is promoting this idea of Oregon? You paint this wonderful picture in Saint Louis that I can't you know th there's a reason it was the gateway to the West. I know now people go Saint Louis Gateway to the West you know. They think that it's like middle of the country it. Yeah it was the city United States at one time and like I put it this way. You do such a job of painting a picture and I guess these came from these letters in some cases race and this is where Fremont's wife life and the daughter of the senator coming. Yeah absolutely. Jessie Benton Fremont is connected with a Saint Louis connected with Virginia where her mother's family came. I'm from and above all connected with Washington DC. Her father was one of the first two United States senators from the brand new state of Missouri which became a state in eighteen twenty anyone he then remained in the US Senate for thirty years and took it upon himself to effectively represent the entire American West. There was this whole area the Louisiana purchase the rest of it beyond Missouri that had not been formed in the states or territories and he he just owned it effectively and said it's mine. I represented all all and I want it all settled and he wanted he had this wild ambition which is another way that this story is so modern. He had this ambition that he was going to make Saint Louis which we yes the middle of the country into an absolute center of Global Commerce. Because he was going to create a trade route over the rocky mountains onto the Pacific and onward to Asia and he believed that if there was a good trade route with an American seaport on the Pacific that that would be a better and safer route to canton John which was the trading port of China then the British had for example and so he had this parochial idea that was also this vast globalizing idea. He's anticipating supporting the enormous trade with China that we have to this day yes. I'm trying to picture eight two thousand mile like city in Saint Louis to have stretch it sport abroad. What do you know he envisioned a trail? There are other people who had this idea. Thomas Jefferson had an idea. There must be some waterway. That would take people out with look for what was called the northwest passage up in the Arctic but Thomas Hart Benton was the guy who was going to do it all right. You didn't write this book though to give us the interesting tale of of John and Jessie Fremont just because it's an interesting tale there are some parallels to now and this is where a lot a lot of political junkies as an historians world trying to figure out. Where are we? Yeah in the American story and are we. We all assume we are repeating history are we are we you know you look at President. Trump been the idea of America. I it's like I remember that version of the Republican Party's in the twenties and thirties We look at the disruption of the nineteen fifties and fake news and the McCarthy era that feels similar similar. I've heard this argument about eighteen fifties in the pre-civil war and this is the argument. You're making what is it about this era. That you believe is so connective in in some way to what we're experiencing today and what are we. What should we learn from this? I want to be careful and you know this already chuck. We don't want to overdo these analogies. Nothing is exactly the same. I do focus a lot on the eighteen fifty six presidential election And in making that comparison with twenty twenty. I don't WanNa say we're just a few years from a civil war. I don't know what we're a few years from. But if we look at the eighteen forties and fifties we see a period in which the national identity. We're now arguing. Over was being formed and the very shape ape of America was being formed. We just described the conquest of California that created the border that we're now arguing. Globalization argument was globalization argument. You realize when you think think about it that the United States became part of Latin America by taking over the northern portion of it and that became part of our identity even though our predecessors is at that time many of them were uncomfortable. Didn't know what it meant. There was a huge argument about race in those days because of slavery there was a huge argument about whether even free African Americans were citizens or would be considered desirable at all by their white neighbors. There was a huge argument about immigration. There was a massive movement movement a nativist movement against immigrants that was reshaping politics that destroyed one of the major political parties called the whigs. And you had these secret societies that no nothing no. Nothing's as what they were called because they were supposedly they would tell if asked about their organizations they would say I know nothing I I learned in my research that some of these orders were so secretive that some of the members didn't actually know things like the more junior members wouldn't even be told the name of the organization his Asia until they got more senior but they became more and more influential and gradually more public and they were arguing in favor of what they called. Native Americans Americans by which they didn't mean India not the way we described native American white people who had been born in the United States and who wanted to press against immigrants and they had some impulsive who themselves within a generation. Yes but there's A. There's a lot of impulses here that will feel familiar. They were particularly concerned. -cerned about immigrants voting. There were lots of proposals to make immigrants. Wait twenty one years before they After they got fascinating about it. And I've felt this way I mean one of my favorite nuggets gets about the Garfield presidential election about immigration and about Chinese immigrants. Yes you know. What the Chinese Electoral Votes California? Where we're decided on that on that issue hugh what it is the? What's interesting? Is this new Republican Party. And this is where it's even more familiar with the current Republican Party. This new Republican Party. It was formed as an abolitionist movement. But it wasn't because.