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Publisher's Summary

Steve Inskeep tells the riveting story of John and Jessie Frémont, the husband and wife team who in the 1800s were instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States, and thus became America's first great political couple.

John C. Frémont, one of the United States' leading explorers of the 19th century, was relatively unknown in 1842, when he commanded the first of his expeditions to the uncharted West. But in only a few years, he was one of the most acclaimed people of the age - known as a wilderness explorer, best-selling writer, gallant army officer, and latter-day conquistador, who in 1846 began the United States' takeover of California from Mexico. He was not even 40 years old when Americans began naming mountains and towns after him. He had perfect timing, exploring the West just as it captured the nation’s attention. But the most important factor in his fame may have been the person who made it all possible: his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont.

Jessie, the daughter of a United States senator who was deeply involved in the West, provided her husband with entrée to the highest levels of government and media, and his career reached new heights only a few months after their elopement. During a time when women were allowed to make few choices for themselves, Jessie - who herself aspired to roles in exploration and politics - threw her skill and passion into promoting her husband. She worked to carefully edit and publicize his accounts of his travels, attracted talented young men to his circle, and lashed out at his enemies. She became her husband’s political adviser, as well as a power player in her own right. In 1856, the famous couple strategized as John became the first-ever presidential nominee of the newly established Republican Party.

With rare detail and in consummate style, Steve Inskeep tells the story of a couple whose joint ambitions and talents intertwined with those of the nascent United States itself. Taking advantage of expanding news media, aided by an increasingly literate public, the two linked their names to the three great national movements of the time - westward settlement, women’s rights, and opposition to slavery. Together, John and Jessie Frémont took parts in events that defined the country and gave rise to a new, more global America. Theirs is a surprisingly modern tale of ambition and fame; they lived in a time of social and technological disruption and divisive politics that foreshadowed our own. In Imperfect Union, as Inskeep navigates these deeply transformative years through Jessie and John’s own union, he reveals how the Frémonts’ adventures amount to nothing less than a tour of the early American soul.

©2020 Steve Inskeep (P)2020 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"This is one of those listens that makes you wonder how people like Jessie and John Frémont can have escaped history - and a Hollywood treatment. It also makes you wonder how authors and narrators like Inskeep find the time to do what they do - and do it so well.... Not surprisingly, [Inskeep is] an effective and engaging narrator. His enthusiasm for his main characters is apparent but never approaches hagiography. Since he's a professional broadcaster, you'd expect his reading to be crisp and his inflections just right. And they are. This is an engaging and rewarding listen." (AudioFile Magazine)

“Revelatory...a fresh look that brings 21st-century vision to bear on the 19th-century story. In writing about both Frémont and his wife, Jessie, the aggressive promoter of his career, Inskeep does two important things. He shines an unsparing light on his subjects, and he finds unnerving similarities between the Frémonts’ America and our own. Like Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, an improbably thrilling book about the Garfield assassination, Imperfect Union finds a big, resonant, star-studded subject that has been hiding in plain sight.... If the book’s purpose is to illuminate and chill, mission accomplished.” (The New York Times

"In the hands of National Public Radio journalist Steve Inskeep, the Frémonts become a vehicle to explore media, the making of modern celebrity, and the fascinating world of mid-nineteenth century American politics ... [Inskeep’s] contribution is to frame these disparate threads through the lens of a widened Frémont circle, masterfully weaving the narratives together in highly readable prose. What emerges is a rich tapestry of not only the Frémonts’ relationship (an “imperfect union”), but also their imperfect midcentury United States as well.” (Missouri Historical Review

What listeners say about Imperfect Union

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Passion and Poison ☠️

I really love how passionate Steve Inskeep is so passionate about his work and story telling , honestly I can listen to him all day. This book is a ripping yarn but for me at the end of the day I felt sad that racism was so strong back in the old days and it stifled the growth of America as a sharing and equitable place for all people. Great job Steve it’s a solid book that captures the spirit of the time

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  • Kevin E. Werner
  • 26-12-2020

The ending is odd.

If you like Inskeep's voice you should like this.

The book traces the John and Jesse Fremont separately and together throughout the book. I got a real feel that Inskeep was portraying Jesse as John's Hillary. Inskeep never says that, but he plays up her role in helping her husband's career along. Both behind the scenes and overtly. Jesse, the daughter, of a Senator seems to relished the role of promoting her husband's ambition.

I think Fremont's significance may be overdone though. He was court martialed, led one expedition into a wintery mess that he escaped, but in a completely un-shakleton like manner just kinda left the rescue of the survivors to subordinates. He opened Oregon and played a pivotal role in CA independence, which led to his court martial. That being a foreshadowing of his brief role in the Civil War. He got lucky on a gold strike, but never seems to have effectively exploited it. Anyway the story stops at his failed run for the presidency in 1856.

The epilogue briefly touches on him being tried in France, in absentia, for fraud associated with railroads. Skims his early actions in Missouri at the break out of the civil war, which were without authority and led to his eventual dismissal. As for the Fremonts they lose a lot of their money and end their lives rather apart emotionally as Inskeep puts it.

Then Inskeep runs through a number of the characters and how their lives turned out. He overplays Buchanan's role in the Dred Scott decision, which is a bit odd and he also makes a passing reference to the 21st century and how things then somewhat reflect things now. This is unfortunate b/c I suspect that may have been driving his book.

Anyway, it's a good book. Listening to Inskeep for a few hours is great. I caution drawing a lot of conclusions from it. I'm skeptical anyway.

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  • Karl R. Walko
  • 03-09-2021

A Celebrity Story

We live in a day when there are so many celebrities it’s difficult to believe that there was a time when there were no celebrities. This book is about the first American celebrities. They became famous due to the national press and the invention of the train and telegraph. They straddled both the old World and the new one. They also became famous at a time when women were beginning to be political. John and Jesse Fremont were the first to use the new means of communicating to become national figures. This book is the compelling story of how John Fremont used his wife’s political connections to gain appointment as the leader of exploratory parties and she used his exploration of the West to further her ambition to become a political figure.
In the lead in to the Civil War, they played a role in defining the two sides, and even initiating the conflict. John was the first Republican candidate for president.
For anyone interested in the history of the US around the Civil War or the exploration of the American West, this book is worth the read.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 23-07-2021

This biography of John Fremont makes you want to strangle him.

Innskeep paints a picture of Fremont that is convincing by its complexity. Fremont’s wife certainly seemed to be “the better man of the two”. The book is a valuable tool of triangulation as we peer back into history.

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  • Tim McGrath
  • 28-05-2021

Excellent biography

Great narration of a well written story. Listen to it as you drive across the West.

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  • Andersons
  • 09-04-2021

Perfect Union of Story and Narrator

Long-time listeners of National Public Radio will feel right at home with veteran host Inskeep's tale of the partnership of adventurer, soldier and presidential candidate John C. Frémont and his modern politico wife Jesse and how they helped create the U.S.A.'s West Coast, blazing a trail where there literally was none. There are a few harrowing scenes in the wilderness which are juxtaposed with the no less harrowing ordeals of birthing a child alone, enduring months of not knowing the fate of your spouse and living with being left alone by choice. There are many familiar characters in this tale, but we see them from unfamiliar viewpoints. Thomas Hart Benton, Frederick Douglass and Samuel Morse are integral to the story. Horace Greeley and Henry Clay get honorable mention, but it is Jesse's private audience with Lincoln that provides the line many readers may remember most. If not for a few decisions we would all be familiar with this story.

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  • Scott
  • 09-02-2021

Unique story, told well.

An entire cast of compelling characters is revealed and the adventures they are involved with are truly epoch. Especially those of the both lead characters.
Steve does a masterful job of performing the very well written book!

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  • G. G. Davis
  • 06-12-2020

Amazing Cast of Characters

The lead characters were fascinating in their own rights in this detailed history of the 18th Century in the US. To also meet Collis Huntington, Tecumseh Sherman, Kit Carson, and the plethora of renowned politicians, made this a great read.

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  • Edward P. Cerne
  • 25-06-2020

The issues confronting Freemont presaged today's.

If you think the issues of racism and xenophobia America is confronting today, you are wrong. Read this riveting tale of issues confronting America as it was more than 150 years ago.

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  • SusanO
  • 13-04-2020

A Cunning Couple Pursues Celebrity

Growing up about 30 miles from Sutter's Mill in northern California, school gave me a vague notion of James Fremont and his wife Jesse. This book taught me that the historic and histrionic behavior of the man who named the Golden Gate and his ambitious wife tells us a lot about the celebrity worship of our current age. This fascinating, informative tale of the Freemonts is packed with the people of their time: Kit Carson, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to name just a few, Ralph Waldo Emerson even makes a brief appearance, as does Abraham Lincoln, whom Jesse confronts in his office with a losing argument. Find a bonus in the fact that with the invention of the telegraph, newspapers played an important role in a presidential election,

The author delivers on the subtitle: How Jessie and John Fremont mapped the west, invented celebrity, and helped cause the Civil War.

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  • Kevin Keller
  • 08-02-2020

A delightful yarn of a complicated story

This was fantastic. Steve Inskeep’s narration keeps the listener engaged through a story that develops slowly and ends with a clearer picture of whom the hero in the story is.

Thoroughly delightful in its entirety.

1 person found this helpful

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