29 November 2007

New Book: Passion and Principal

I just finished one of the most fascinating books I've read on the topic of American history: Sally Denton's, Passion and Principal, a biography of THE American power couple in the mid-19th Century: John C. and Jessie Fremont.

I was so inspired, I published a review on Amazon.com, which I will include below. Let me just say that I found a kindred spirit in Fremont: a man probably too adventurous for his own good--and one far too ahead of the curve to succeed as a military man or a politician. Perhaps it's a sign of my age that I find myself spending more time sympathizing with the flaws of the individuals I read about than I spend aspiring to copy their greater attributes.

Does anyone else find themselves reading biographies in this way?

Like Fremont, I also married a powerful woman, albeit one who lived in a culture that was more accepting of brilliance in women. Jessie Fremont excelled as a writer and political strategist long before such occupations were appropriate for her sex.

Anyway, here's the review:

His career wedged between two American titans, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, John C. Fremont leaps into the his rightful place in history through this remarkable book.

Fremont's idealism both helped an haunted his career. He was the first American to systematically map the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin, and he played a remarkable role in the Bear Flag Revolt and the conquest of California. But the "Pathfinder" often found himself too far in front of his contemporaries: his failure to adapt to the changing military change of command led to court martial within a year of his California exploits; his adamant opposition to slavery cost him first his senate seat and later his position as commander of the Union's Western forces in the Civil War (he issued the first Emancipation Proclamation in the state of Missouri in 1861, and Lincoln punished him harshly for this); finally, he invested the huge fortune he had made in the California gold fields in transcontinental railroads, only to fail at every turn and die in poverty.

No better example of both Fremont's strengths and flaws can be found than the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado: a rugged mountain chain he tried twice to traverse, ending in failure each time, the first time in the service of the U.S. Army and the second time in an attempt to survey a pass for the railroads through the mountains.

This is the first biography I have read of Fremont, and I felt that Denton's tone was sometimes overly sympathetic. She seemed to play down obvious indications of both Fremonts' extra-marital affairs and the personality tics that prevented Fremont from succeeding as a politician (despite runs for the presidency both in 1856 and 1864).

All in all, though, Denton does a wonderful job of bringing this power couple to life. From beginning to end, I was fascinated by these two individuals and their contributions during a critical part of American history.

1 comment:

5Gustos said...

I don't think I received a very good education when it comes to things like history, the arts, etc. In fact, I never liked history in school until finally, I happened upon a teacher who brought history to life for me personally. This happened in college with my only history class required for my degree. I would have taken more history classes, but nursing is predominately science, and clinicals leave no spare time for classes "just for fun". As an adult, I find myself drawn to history. I will have to consider reading this book. It sounds interesting. It's just hard to pick which book to read next! So many books, so little time.