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Getting to know the 19th-century version of Bill and Hillary

Jessie Frémont was a savvy political wife. Jessie Frémont was a savvy political wife. (buffalo bill historical center)

Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics, and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America, By Sally Denton, Bloomsbury, 460 pp., illustrated, $32.50

There was a torchlight parade up New York's Broadway in June 1856 to greet John C. Frémont, newly nominated as the Republican Party's first presidential candidate. But as he acknowledged the cheers from his balcony, his words were drowned out by calls for his wife: "Jessie! Jessie! Give us Jessie!"

"Never before," writes Sally Denton in her glowing biography of the couple, "Passion and Principle," "had a candidate's wife been called to appear in public," and her appearance "drove [the crowd] wild."

And while ultimately unsuccessful -- in a three-way race, Frémont lost to James Buchanan -- the campaign "exuded celebrity status from the start."

What Denton has done is to explore, with skill and style, the source of that celebrity that surrounded the Frémonts. She is a sure-footed guide through an adventure that stretches across a still-unexplored continent, onto Civil War battlefields, and into the major moral and political conflict of the time.

Recalling his first expedition as a member of the Army's elite Topographical Corps in 1837, Frémont wrote that it was on the frontier that "I found the path I was 'destined to walk.' " And when war with Mexico threatened over the western territories in 1845, Frémont led a force of settlers that seized California from the Mexican Army.

Frémont was fortunate to find a mentor in Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri senator who was a leading advocate of westward expansion -- and the father of Jessie.

Jessie Benton was a high-spirited and accomplished 15 when she first met the 27-year-old Frémont. "They were irresistibly drawn to each other from the moment they met," writes Denton. They eloped the following year and shared a life on the frontier and in politics until his death, in 1890.

The incident that perhaps best illustrates Jessie Frémont's decisiveness and her political skills -- as well as the major role she played in her husband's activities -- came in 1843. Frémont had been given command of a new expedition to explore the Pacific Northwest. Officially a geographic expedition, it was, writes Denton, "a covert intelligence-gathering and military reconnaissance operation" into an area in which Great Britain had economic and territorial interests.

Frémont's War Department superiors suspected the expedition had unauthorized military goals when Frémont added a howitzer cannon to its equipment. Frémont, by then in present-day Kansas City preparing to head west, was ordered back to Washington to explain what was afoot.

A copy of the order was sent to his home in St. Louis. Jessie Frémont, her suspicions aroused, broke open the seals on the envelope, read the order, and immediately moved to thwart its intent. She forwarded the recall order with her own warning to head out before the official order arrived: "Only trust me and go."

As Denton comments, Jessie Frémont was "widely seen as a full-fledged partner in her husband's pursuits." Frémont himself called her his "second mind."

And Jessie Frémont played key roles in the two major political controversies of her husband's career -- both involving the principal moral and political issue of the day, slavery.

In 1856, she counseled him to reject the offer of the Democratic Party's presidential nomination -- which almost certainly would have led to victory and the presidency -- rather than compromise his strong anti-slavery principles.

And when, as commander of embattled Union forces in Missouri in 1861, Frémont determined to issue a proclamation seizing the property of Confederate sympathizers -- which in effect meant freeing their slaves -- she traveled to Washington from Missouri in an unsuccessful effort to win approval from a strongly opposed President Lincoln.

The book is a grand story of "passion and principle," and it is not for nothing that Denton draws parallels between the Frémonts and both George and Elizabeth Custer and, more significantly, Bill and Hillary Clinton -- like the Frémonts, "a political couple [who] fascinated and baffled the public."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.